Stalking the (Could Be) President – Part One

11:56:51 AM
Well, this is turning out to be satisfyingly circus-like – and the senator hasn’t even shown up yet! Not publicly, that is. There’s a growing throng of camera crews, reporters, bemused tourists and megaphone-ready protesters outside the Chateau, peering expectantly through the tinted glass of every black SUV that pulls up. (Those poor Chinese dignitaries looked so confused.)

I’m pretty sure he’s going to sneak in through the back door, although given the lack of enthusiasm the PMO has demonstrated for the visit so far, he’ll be lucky to get a drive in from the airport. That is, unless they just waved him over to the taxi stand.

Anyway, so I’m inside now, sitting on a riser at the back of the room, staring wistfully at the salads that are already getting warm and trying to spot MPs and other noteables in the crowd. So far, we’ve seen Dean Del Mastro – who failed utterly to call anyone a damn communist – Jim Abbott, Lee Richardson; no cabinet ministers so far. Oh, except former Liberal ones, like John Manley, whose face periodically appears, ghost-like, on the screen at the front of the room as one of the many “distinguished speakers” the club has hosted in the past.

Apparently, lunch is about to be served. Not to us, of course. Last time I was at an event here, they stuffed the media into the rafters – the second level balcony seats – where there was a lavish array of sandwiches, cookies and other delicacies. Sadly, it turned out that it was actually the lunch for the Chartered Accountants Association, but by the time a white-faced hotel staffer had appeared on the scene, it was too late. Sorry about that, guys.

12:11:53 PM
The organizers – or, to be specific, one extremely hapless organizer – are trying to kick us off the risers and being gently but resolutely ignored. Now he’s resorting to bribery: There are soundboxes back there! And chairs! And sandwiches! (Disclaimer: sandwiches may be imaginary.) This really is an excellent example of how an organization can utterly fail to predict how popular an event will be.

12:16:40 PM
Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke here too. The screen just reminded me. Also, Bill Clinton, Stephen Harper, Ted Danson and Viktor Yushchenko. Oh, and Stéphane Dion. We can’t forget him!

The crowd is chowing down, and we’re just waiting out the clock at this point. The speech, which we’ve all read by the way, since the campaign sent out the text under embargo a few hours ago, isn’t scheduled to start until 1 pm. That means we’ll be sitting here, watching people eat for almost an hour.

Danny Williams! He spoke here too!

12:28:02 PM
It’s interesting, there doesn’t seem to be a head table – not an official one, at least. I wonder if McCain actually gets to eat lunch, or if they’ll just shove a burger down his throat on the way into town.

12:31:08 PM
This is new: Having given up on evicting us from the risers – really, it wasn’t going to happen, guys – they’re now setting up an impromptu barricade between us and the rest of the room. We’re velvet roped-in! The horror! Maybe it’s to protect us from being poked and prodded by curious American reporters.

12:33:23 PM
On the menu, as detailed by Hanna Boudreault, eagle-eyed CanWest reporter, who is sitting beside me on the riser: chicken (baked, with rice), something green on the side, and for dessert, an utterly scrumptious-looking chocolate mousse cake-thing that we are already conspiring to talk a suggestible guest into handing over. In the service of due diligence and investigative reportage, of course. If it should happen to get eaten in the course of our research, that’s just the price you pay for quality journalism.

12:39:32 PM
Crisis on the media riser! Is John McCain the nominee presumptive? Is that safe to say? Does a cut line have to be reshot?

12:50:21 PM
The magic of live event reporting: bored reporters taking pictures of each other using the sadly vacant dais as backdrop. Livebloggers—we’re the worst offenders.

12:51:29 PM
This should, in theory, be starting soon, unless McCain is running late. Which was what usually happened in New Hampshire, now that I think about it, but that was a little different, what with him actually being in active primary campaign mode, with nine events across the state every single day.

12:54:04 PM
After axhaustive investigative research, ITQ can reveal that there was also a salmon option —we repeat, a salmon option—presumably for vegetarians who mistakenly believe that fish are some sort of swimming vegetable.

12:58:53 PM
Apparently, there isn’t even coffee service at the tables—just a do-it-yourself pot. That seems a bit chintzy considering how much some of these people paid to be here. And no wine, even. The cake, however, is reported to be “yummy,” according to senior inside sources.

1:02:57 PM
Okay, the travelling press are travelling into the room—there’s a stream of them, looking somewhat harried, flowing from a side door over to the media corner into which the rest of us refused to be herded earlier.

Now the president of the Economic Club of Canada is at the microphone, touting this as a “historic occasion”—the first time a presidential nominee has spoken in Canada. He then calls in some guy with Spectra Energy—a major sponsor of the event—to make the “formal” introduction, and with that, the senator makes his first appearance. He gets a standing ovation just for walking in the room—in fairness, he would have gotten that just for showing up—and is now waiting patiently for some guy from Spectra Energy to realize this isn’t his moment, and hand over the floor.

1:07:44 PM
I should note that about five minutes before the speech was scheduled to begin, the room was hit by a rolling wave of BlackBerry outage. I’m not sure if it’s some sort of security precaution, or the network melted down under the furious intra-table emailing, but it makes liveblogging a bit of a challenge.

1:09:13 PM
McCain starts off with the obligatory hockey reference—Wayne Gretzky is in Arizona!—and then moves on to his prepared speech, which I’m betting has now been posted in its entirety on every media website in the country.

1:10:33 PM
Rivalry and distrust are the enemy; regional stability is the way to go. He gets a genuine laugh by describing Canadians as “the neighbours we fear only on the hockey rinks and baseball diamonds.” He gets ITQ points for including the latter, and not mistakenly believing that baseball is banned in Canada due to the danger it poses to the igloo-building unionized socialized doctor cabal.

1:12:53 PM
Shoutout to Canada, home of the budget surpluses! Well, for now. Clearly, no one has warned him of the Permanent Tax on Everything. Or the new half a trillion dollar defence spending list.

1:15:43 PM
More praise for Canada—friend, ally, and the country that took in all those suddenly nomadic planes that were left stranded in the air after the September 11th attacks. Someone has clearly briefed the guy on the list of Bushian Snubs To Make Right. Praise for our efforts in Afghanistan, both militarily, and through “generous” investments. Even in Iraq, despite our differences, Canada has done “all that those differences would allow” to help.

1:18:30 PM
He brings up Guantenemo, which, he notes, a lot of Canadians have protested, and he intends to close it down—and listen closely when allies offer advice. So—basically the opposite of the current Republican modus operandi, at least as practiced by Bush.

1:20:59 PM
Climate change, cap and trade: Another way Canada and the US can work together. Nice long acknowledgment of Canada’s importance as a provider of energy, as well as the largest trading partner – which is a good segue to trade, the common continental market, and NAFTA.

1:22:55 PM
Big cheer for NAFTA, and the danger of making it the object of political debate. No hiding behind protectionist walls, no threatening to abrogate agreements – I think this may be as close as he gets to going after Obama and the Democrats, which is probably smart.

1:25:50 PM
And with a litany of thank-yous that says a lot about our apparently limitless capacity to be quietly offended by thoughtless American presidents past, he closes by thanking us for our time, and follows the spotlight out the same door he entered, which is the cue for the rest of us – the riser gang, that is – to pick our way over the velvet rope, weave through the tables and hit the press room next door.

1:31:35 PM
Wow, this is like a miniature version of that college gymnasium turned media warehouse during the ABC Facebook debates! I wasn’t quick enough to snag a seat, unfortunately, which means I’ll have to hang around at the back, regretting my choice in footwear. (Oh, come on, it wouldn’t be a liveblog without a whine about my shoes, would it? )

1:33:41 PM
Wow, there he is. He snuck in so quietly that I didn’t even notice until he started speaking.

“This is not a political campaign trip,” he says, somewhat but not entirely coincidentally. “It’s to thank a friend.” He then pays tribute to Canadian soldiers – and one diplomat – lost in Afghanistan, and reveals that he will indeed be meeting with Emerson, as well as Rick Hillier.

1:36:07 PM
Joan Bryden gets the first question, and she goes straight to the memo leak. Are we just a prop? No, no, no. (Well, really, he was hardly going to say yes even if we are.) This is no different from all those other trips he’s taken – London, Iraq, now Ottawa.

1:37:24 PM
And the second question: Omar Khadr, and the child soldier dilemma. McCain seems prepared, and notes that there are “ongoing discussions” on the Khadr case, reminding us that he opposes torture. He’s also concerned about Gitmo – as mentioned in his speech – and hopes the discussions will continue. But if he becomes president, he promises that no one will be tortured.

Canada hasn’t asked for Khadr to be repatriated. If we do, that willl lead to more discussions and, hopefully, resolution.

Ooh, a challenge!

1:40:33 PM
And now – Stephen Taylor with the Blogging Tories, who asks whether McCain will make Canada his first foreign trip. You suck. (Love you.)

1:41:49 PM
Third question – well, fourth if you count Taylor. From City: More troops for Afghanistan? Not really a yes or a no, but he acknowledges the need to address corruption within the government.

1:42:58 PM
Apparently, there is a guy wandering the room taking pictures of people’s shoes. I have nothing to say about that, except if a shot of a pair of beat-up studded black platform sandals shows up on CNN, that would be me.

Also in the allegedly media room, aside from possibly deranged foot fetishists: a gaggle of schoolkids – highschool age, I think – who are here for no reason anyone can guess. Maybe they won some sort of political science award, and this is the prize.

1:46:02 PM
It’s weird; in one way, this is a far more formal press conference than we’re used to on the Hill – there are tables! And chairs! And people raise their hands! But the subject matter is far more freewheeling, and the senator seems to be genuinely enjoying himself. Or faking it brilliantly. Right now, he’s talking water diversion — we’ve really hit the mark as far as predictable Canadian questions so far –and to his credit, McCain seems to have thought of the issue.

1:48:05 PM
Oh, this is ironic. Bob Fife of CTV is asking about the NAFTA memo leak, and… that was odd. His mic just popped, leaving him yelping into the air, and the senator looking puzzled. An act of God? Or PMO? To his credit, McCain stickhandles his way through the question without saying anything more about Obama and trade, but in a genial way.

1:50:48 PM
Apparently, the irony broke the entire sound system, or the microphones at least. McCain is trying to pick up the gist of the questions, but the rest of us – well, the back rows – have no idea what the context might be, which makes his answers hard to follow.

Meanwhile, the print photogs are swarming the centre aisle, army crawling across the surprisingly garish floral pattern.

The students, incidentally, look bored. Ungrateful brats! (Just kidding. That’s probably just how kids today look when they’re being thoughtful.)

1:53:58 PM
I’m not sure why poor Senator Lindsay Graham has to stand beside him throughout this whole event. It’s really not like he’s going to get a question.

1:54:27 PM
Last question – from the Ottawa Citizen – and it’s a corker: Deeper economic integration, the Security and Prosperity Partnership, softwood, NAFTA. McCain gives a similarly kitchen-sink answer.

And that’s that! A more extensive press conference than this town has seen from the prime minister in months – and he wasn’t even here to see it. We’re not so scary!

As promised, I’ll continue to stalk the senator this afteroon, but right now, I need a bite to eat. I’ll be back later.

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