Long before he got to the high school gym in Portsmouth, Ohio, on Wednesday, Republican presidential hopeful John McCain knew what would be waiting for him: a room full of people worried about making ends meet.
Sure enough, in the middle of the town hall meeting, a nonprofit manager named Mary stood up to ask about threatened layoffs at a cargo airport in nearby Wilmington.
"We will lose 8,600 jobs," she said. "We're just small people trying to live a life, and I want to be able to keep our nonprofits alive."
McCain, who is focusing on pocketbook issues this week, didn't promise any direct relief but made a pitch, as he often does, for job retraining through community colleges. And he said problems like those in Wilmington are widespread.
"Americans are worried about the security of their current job, and they're worried that they and their kids and their neighbors may not find good jobs and good opportunities in the future. To make matters worse, and you know this very well, the price of gasoline has gone over $4 a gallon. And it continues up."
These town hall meetings are a favorite campaign format for McCain. But the questions are unpredictable, and it's easy to get off-message. Since a staff shake-up last week, McCain's advisers have worked on sharpening his opening statements.
On Wednesday, he gave his statement without a teleprompter — which has given him problems in the past. He talked about tax cuts, government spending cuts and energy independence. Earlier in the day, McCain donned a red, white and blue hard hat to tour an experimental coal plant in Pennsylvania.
McCain is generally skeptical of government subsidies. But he has proposed spending $2 billion a year to help develop clean coal technology.
There are other signs of last week's shake-up, in which Bush-Cheney veteran Steve Schmidt took control of the campaign. The photo ops are more carefully staged now. And the economic message is reinforced with daily conference calls and high-profile supporters on the morning TV shows.
But Iran's missile test Wednesday punched a hole in the campaign's newfound discipline. Soon after the test was reported, McCain departed from his economic theme long enough to criticize both the Iranian government and his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama. Both candidates say they want tougher sanctions against Iran. But McCain faults Obama for saying he would couple those sanctions with more direct diplomacy.
"Lines of communication are fine. Action is what's necessary," McCain said.
If McCain had his way, the election would be fought on national security issues like this one. But that's not the case, and McCain knows it. En route to Ohio, he said he would be going back to the economic message — not because it's what his handlers want, but because voters insist on it.
"Right now, the economy is such that it's hurting them every single hour of every day," he said. "We have to talk a lot about it."
Some in the town hall meeting were wary of McCain's support for nuclear power. A uranium enrichment plant in the region has turned into a costly cleanup project. But others welcomed any new source of energy.
Renee Wampler even backs McCain's plan to expand offshore oil drilling.
"Probably if he'd brought that up 10 years ago, I might have been against it. I've got sort of an environmentalist side to me," Wampler said. "But I think right now that there is a need."
McCain will try to stay on that economic message Thursday at a town hall meeting in Michigan.