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Epidemic of foot-in-mouth afflicts candidates this year

Times Staff Writers

When the dust clears after election day, 2006 may be remembered as the year of the offhand remark.

In what he said was a joke gone awry about the Iraq war, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) this week became the second would-be presidential candidate -- after Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) -- to see his hopes dimmed because of a botched or unscripted comment. Appearing Monday at a Democratic rally in Pasadena, Kerry told college students that they needed to study hard and try to do well in school because “if you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”

As other Democratic candidates quickly shied away from appearances with Kerry, who as the party’s 2004 presidential nominee emphasized his military service, he issued a written apology late Wednesday “to any service member, family member, or American who was offended.”

Kerry’s slip of the tongue joins Allen’s “macaca” characterization of an opponent’s dark-skinned campaign worker as a nationally infamous campaign lowlight, but similar loose-lip remarks have caused no end of trouble for lesser-known candidates.

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Available via mouse click on websites like YouTube, magnified by 24-hour cable news networks and radio talk show hosts eager for controversy, foot-in-mouth syndrome has become the bane of candidates coast to coast:

* Steve Kagen, a Wisconsin Democrat running for the House of Representatives, arrived late to a campaign event after visiting an Indian reservation. “We’re on Injun time,” he explained. “They don’t tell time by the clock.” Local radio talk show hosts went ballistic. Kagen apologized.

* Banker Tramm Hudson, running in Florida’s Republican primary for the House seat being vacated by GOP Senate candidate Katherine Harris, told a Christian Coalition political forum: “Blacks are not the greatest swimmers or may not even know to swim.” Later he apologized, noting, “I said something stupid.” He finished third.

* Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) accused Maryland’s GOP Senate candidate, Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, of “a career of slavishly supporting the Republican Party.” Steele, who is African American, took umbrage; conservative bloggers called the episode “Macaca: the Sequel”; and Hoyer -- the No. 2 Democrat in the House -- had to apologize.

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In Washington, a gaffe has been defined as the trouble a politician gets into when he says what he’s actually thinking. With some unexpectedly tight races this election season, and with many contests going down to the wire, overtaxed candidates are sometimes committing the sin of failing to stay on message.

“People are running hard and very tired,” said Edward J. Rollins, a GOP consultant who ran President Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign. “That’s why the last two weeks of a campaign, I always locked my candidates in the bus and put them on a script.”

Vice President Dick Cheney, on the interview circuit as the election nears, last week denied that he was referring to a controversial interrogation technique when he said that dunking terrorism suspects in water to elicit information was “a no-brainer” for him. White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said later that “a dunk in the water is a dunk in the water” -- and not the torture method known as water-boarding, which is banned by U.S. law.

Elizabeth Edwards, wife of White House Democratic hopeful John Edwards, said during a luncheon sponsored by Ladies’ Home Journal that her life as a stay-at-home mom was more “joyful” than that of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). Clinton, who is seeking reelection this year, is one of John Edwards’ likely opponents for the 2008 presidential nomination.

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“I think my choices have made me happier,” Edwards said at the luncheon. “I think I’m more joyful than she is.”

Edwards later apologized to Clinton, setting off an unusual bidding war on who was actually happier. “I love the time I get to spend with my husband and my daughter and my mother,” Clinton said. “The choices I’ve made have been right for me.”

That wasn’t the only incident involving the junior senator from New York. Her Republican opponent, John Spencer -- down by 30% in a recent Quinnipiac University poll -- reportedly made the mistake of loosening his tongue Oct. 20 while sitting on an airplane next to Ben Smith of the New York Daily News.

In a column published three days later, Smith reported Spencer’s speculation that Clinton had undergone plastic surgery worth “millions of dollars.” “You ever see a picture of her back then? Whew,” Smith quoted Spencer as saying. “I don’t know why Bill married her.”

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Clinton laughed that one off, showing reporters her lack of facial scars and quipping: “I thought my high school picture was cute.” Spencer called the report “a complete fabrication,” but acknowledged that he had talked with Smith about “everyone looking different” as they age.

He should have learned from a previous experience to watch his words when reporters are nearby: On Oct. 18, he was interviewed by Phil Reisman of the Journal News of Westchester, N.Y. Reisman wrote that he had asked whether Spencer would attack Clinton in a forthcoming debate by using the “L word” -- liberal. According to Reisman, Spencer replied facetiously: “You know me, how words slip out. As long as I don’t call her a lesbian, I’m OK.”

Oops.

“If he offended anyone, he apologizes for it,” a campaign spokesman told the New York Post.

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Sometimes saying “I’m sorry” has gotten candidates in further trouble. When Allen apologized for using the word “macaca” to describe a student of Indian descent who was dogging him with a video camera, he also expressed regret for his youthful infatuation with the Confederate flag -- which included wearing a rebel flag lapel pin for his Palos Verdes High School yearbook picture.

This ancillary apology got him into trouble with the Virginia commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who complained that Allen was “using our flag to wipe the muck from his shoes that he’s now stepped in.”

johanna.neuman@latimes.com

richard.simon@latimes.com

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