By Michael Kranish, Globe Staff
DOVER, N.H. -- As Senator John McCain rolled down a New Hampshire highway today in his "Straight Talk Express" campaign bus, he listened to a description of the latest attack on him by his chief rival in this state's primary, Mitt Romney.
He smirked as he heard the former Massachusetts governor's assertion that McCain wanted to allow illegal immigrants to remain permanently in the United States.
Asked how he intended to respond, the Arizona Republican said: "Never get into a wrestling match with a pig. You both get dirty -- and the pig likes it."
The back-of-the-bus compartment in which McCain was holding forth went silent for several seconds. Finally, a reporter asked: was McCain comparing Romney to a pig? McCain laughed and paused as he formulated his response: "That was a general philosophical approach to American politics."
The moment encapsulated McCain's day on the campaign trail, during which he attended several town hall-style meetings attended by overflowing audiences of several hundred people. He reveled in the large crowds, which he said reminded him of his surge before his 2000 primary win, while also wrestling with an array of charges against him arriving over the television airwaves and via email messages. He was caustic and confident, cracking jokes in his trademark style as traveled from Dover to Merrimack to Manchester while Romney and other Republican rivals were campaigning in Iowa.