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Republican Presidential hopeful and Arizona Senator John McCain, left, greets students from Chester Academy as he paid a visit to the Chester Fire Department.

CHESTER | Each successive vehicle's approach to the town's fire station drew higher-pitched screams from Chester Academy students awaiting presidential candidate John McCain's arrival Wednesday.

The pitch registered siren-like proportions as the Arizona senator arrived in a white van and shook hands and signed autographs for the crowd of 60 or 70 fifth-graders and social studies students in grades 6-8.

"I never met someone running for president before," said Chris Antoine, a sixth-grader, as classmates held handmade signs aloft reading "Mac is Back" and "Go Johnny Go."

Children and adults alike were impressed with the candidate's visit to small-town Chester, population 3,792 as of the 2000 census.

Chester fire Lt. James Hassam said McCain's visit was especially important to those who have a hard time arranging travel out of town to places where candidates typically campaign.

After all, Hassam said, "Small-town life is what America is about."

Fire Chief Rich Antoine said it reassures those from rural areas to know that candidates are thinking about them.

Furthermore, some of these small-town children will be voting age in 2012, social studies teacher Joanna Shriber observed. It's good for them to see the presidential nomination process at work, she said.

It's important to get the students excited about democracy,'' Technology Director William Cavanaugh said.

McCain spent about 40 minutes at the fire station, part of it inside telling the media he steadfastly supports keeping American troops in Iraq. Soldiers have told him that the increase in troops has been successful in making Anbar Province and parts of Baghdad more secure, among other successes, he said.

"(The situation) is dramatically different than what it was one or two months ago," McCain said.

The Republican had harsh words for former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, calling him one of the worst defense secretaries in the country's history and adding that he was the only GOP presidential hopeful who opposed his policies.

Like the nation, some in the crowd, even friends, had differing opinions on whether the United States should leave its troops in Iraq or pull them out.

Carol McFarland of Chester wants the troops to stay until they prevail.

"Stand firm against terrorism," she said.

Len and Jean Flood of Fremont have two grandchildren in the military who are bound for Iraq. The grandparents want the troops home as soon as possible.

"It doesn't seem to be working over there," Len Flood said.

Regardless of their position on the war, those who attended were excited by the visit.

Shriber said some of her students told her they were excited because, "We actually have the chance to meet a potential president."

For McCain, being accessible and learning what is on people's minds is part of what distinguishes the United States from other countries.

"This is what America is about, what the New Hampshire primary is about," McCain said, before leaving to prepare for the evening's GOP presidential candidate debate.

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