Page last updated at 14:01 GMT, Tuesday, 1 July 2008 15:01 UK

The master of the town hall stump

By Max Deveson
BBC News, Pipersville, Pennsylvania

The self-proclaimed purveyor of Straight Talk takes the stage, and invites questions on any subject.

John McCain
John McCain enjoys the odd disagreement with the audience
A town hall meeting is John McCain's chance to show he is a man of the people - and he does it with consummate skill.

In the warehouse of a factory in the small town of Pipersville, Pennsylvania, amid the fork-lift trucks and stacked boxes, the 2,000-strong audience was overwhelmingly friendly - but one person who did not seem to want a mere love-in was the candidate himself.

He relished the chance to "respectfully disagree" with questioners, to give them a dose of that trademark straight talk - and even, occasionally, to shut them up.

Spanish-language signs

At first he listened patiently as one man dragged out a long, arcane question about funding for space exploration, then just as the audience was getting restive, he broke in with an interruption.

He had read the mood of the crowd, his timing was right - and he won an enthusiastic round of applause.

The audience perked up considerably when the subject of immigration was broached.

A woman demanded to know why she was asked to "dial 'one' for English" when she got through to switchboards these days.

John McCain and lorry driver
Mr McCain said the US would have to break its dependence on foreign oil
"And why do doors have 'Entrada' written on them instead of 'Entrance'?" she asked.

This got the biggest cheer of the afternoon.

But Senator McCain, whose views on immigration are out of tune with those of many Republicans, used the moment to reach out to Hispanic voters.

"We welcome all cultures from all over the world," he said. "We love the Hispanic heritage."

It was a moment of that respectful disagreement.

One recipient of some "straight talk" was a 16-year-old who asked him whether social security - America's pension system - would still be around when he was old enough to claim it.

"The system will not be there," Mr McCain said, bluntly.

He then urged the Democrats in Congress to "reach across the aisle" to help him "fix" it.

Jab at Obama

His comments on the US "energy crisis" were also blunt - or possibly wishful thinking, depending on your point of view.

Jean Rissi
Jean Rissi: Impressed by the candidate's "eloquence"
"My friends, we are going to have to eliminate our dependence on foreign oil," he said, laying out plans for a major expansion of nuclear and renewable energy.

Most of it seemed to hit the spot for members of the audience.

"I was impressed he was able to respond to all of those questions so eloquently, and so respectfully," said one, Jean Rissi.

"He did extremely well," said another, Richard Walter, aged 66, though he admitted that one reason he was supporting Mr McCain was his dislike of Barack Obama.

Mr McCain referred directly to Senator Obama only once during the event.

"I respect Senator Obama and I admire him, we just have fundamental differences in how we view this nation has to be led. I will continue to conduct a respectful campaign but our differences are profound and they are sharp," he said.

But he also slipped in a jab at the Illinois senator, declaring that Pennsylvanians were proud of their right to bear arms, and were certainly not "clinging to guns because they're bitter" - an allusion to controversial comments made by Mr Obama in the run-up to Pennsylvania's Democratic primary.

Key state

Knowing that these town hall events play to his strengths, Mr McCain challenged Mr Obama to a series of them, around the country. It's an offer that Mr Obama appears to have decided not to take up.

At Pipersville, Mr McCain insisted that he was the "underdog" in this election, with an "uphill battle" on his hands.

Pennsylvania, he added, in another attempt to focus his supporters' minds, "may decide who the next president of the United States is".

Mr McCain's best hopes are in the west of the state, but he needs to work hard to win suburbs near Philadelphia, such as Bucks County, in which Pipersville is located.

The district is represented by a Democrat in the House of Representatives, but was held by a Republican until 2006.

Overall, the state - with its 21 electoral college votes - has voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1988, but it could vote for Mr McCain in 2008.

The white working class, who mostly voted for Hillary Clinton rather than Barack Obama in the Democratic primary, are a particular target for him.

He will be aiming to meet many more of these working people in the months to come, promising to take his Straight Talk Express campaign bus "to the small towns all over this state, eastern and western Pennsylvania".

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