LODI, Calif.—Thirty-one-thousand feet above the Central Valley, sitting in a window seat on a crowded low-fare airliner, gubernatorial candidate Tom McClintock hesitantly accepted the offer from another passenger: a high-altitude laying on of hands.
"I recognized you and wondered if I could give you a blessing?" asked Jim Wilson, an Episcopal priest dressed this recent day in khaki shorts and sneakers.
His elbows bumping McClintock's two seatmates, Wilson placed his thick hands on the Republican state senator's silver hair and prayed aloud, never specifically asking the Lord for a McClintock victory Tuesday but requesting just about everything -- short of a pox on the other candidates' houses -- that would lead to an upset win.
"Amen. God bless you."
"Thank you," McClintock said. "I've never had a blessing on an airplane."
With the lone conservative in the race still happily cribbing votes from moderate Republican front-runner Arnold Schwarzenegger, McClintock's longshot campaign has in the final days become a wild, sometimes wacky adventure -- not necessarily a rollicking one, for the studious 47-year-old is not a rollicking kind of man, but certainly, as one aide put it, "a trip."
With the state party having thrown its support behind Schwarzenegger and having pleaded repeatedly and unsuccessfully for McClintock to bail out lest he split the Republican vote, Tom McClintock nevertheless has continued roaming the state, sweeping up the support of serious conservatives from every corner.
Along the way, McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) gets his share of fringe supporters -- a woman from Glendale named Dorothy who handed out a typed diatribe against "collectivist establishment one-worlders," the "careful researcher" from Sacramento who offered McClintock data on a vague conspiracy relating to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Most supporters at his events, however, are conservatives who cannot abet Schwarzenegger's social liberalism and believe they've finally found in McClintock the person to restore California to its rightful, bountiful glory. Some share virtually all his views, some a few, while others care primarily about one, be it his stance against abortion, his pledge to cut taxes or reduce vehicle registration fees, his promise to nullify government electricity contracts or loosen gun-control laws.
In Sacramento, three Air Force ROTC cadets, all of whom hope to fly fighter jets, cheered at nearly every pause in McClintock's speech. At a small winery in Lodi, the president of the company offered up free zinfandel at a fund-raiser, saying he and a co-owner support McClintock because they couldn't afford workers' compensation premiums this year. At a backyard "volunteer appreciation" event in La Canada Flintridge, members of a women's gun-rights group called the Liberty Belles snapped pictures with the candidate.
New Supporters, New Donors
"That's how coalition campaigns are built," McClintock said of his eclectic constituency. "And it seems like every time they do one of these tell-Tom-it's-over drills, it backfires and we get new supporters and new small donors."
The veteran state legislator from Ventura County began the race well behind not just the world-famous Schwarzenegger and Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, but numerous other better-known candidates, including Republican Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), who launched the recall, former Major League Baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth and columnist Arianna Huffington.
Issa, Ueberroth and Huffington have dropped out. Meanwhile, McClintock, to the surprise and delight of conservatives from California and across the nation, has found himself with an unyielding base of support.
One reason is that he knows his message cold. From his first, unrefined speeches as a candidate, he laid out a lean theme of undoing Davis' tripling of vehicle license fees, slashing a host of state agencies and voiding pricey state energy contracts, "and that's before lunch on my first day in office."
"I said, that's it, that's your message -- now you've got to stick to it," recalled campaign manager John Feliz.
McClintock has stuck to it, relentlessly. Although politicians on the stump typically repeat phrases day after day, McClintock often repeats them verbatim. He resists almost every temptation to stray from the script -- to appeal to religious conservatives, for example -- and was clearly uncomfortable with a hundred passengers watching the priest minister to him.
But he is getting restless with the repetition, apparently.