McCain blunder leaves him looking for political shelter
A political gaffe, it is said, occurs when a politician inadvertently tells the truth.
Thus did John McCain’s frank admission that he doesn’t know how many homes he and his wife own spark the biggest, nastiest mud fight of the presidential campaign.
“I think -- I’ll have my staff get back to you,” the presumptive Republican nominee said when asked about his homes by Politico.com, the website reported Thursday. “It’s condominiums where -- I’ll have them get to you.”
McCain’s candor came as a godsend to rival Barack Obama, whose Democratic campaign has appeared to suffer under relentless attacks from McCain. For the first time, opinion polls this week showed the race effectively tied.
Under pressure to fight back, Obama seized on McCain’s stumble Thursday, ridiculing him as grievously out of touch with middle-class Americans at a time of falling housing prices, soaring energy costs and widespread economic distress.
Obama also slammed McCain’s claim this week that America’s economic fundamentals were strong and his comment last weekend, which aides said was a joke, that he defined someone as rich if they earned more than $5 million.
“I guess if you think that being rich means that you’ve got to make $5 million and if you don’t know how many houses you have, then it’s not surprising that you might think the economy was fundamentally strong,” Obama told supporters at a community college in Chester, Va.
“But if you’re like me and you’ve got one house, or if you were like the millions of people who are struggling right now to keep up with their mortgage so they don’t lose their home, you might have a different perspective.”
As a final zinger, Obama added, “By the way, the answer is John McCain has seven homes.”
McCain and his wealthy wife, Cindy, have four homes -- in Arizona, California and Virginia -- worth about $9 million on local tax rolls. The McCains also own at least four other residential properties as investments or for use by other family members, public records show. All of the properties are held in the name of Cindy McCain and her dependent children through partnerships, limited liability companies and trusts.
With Obama preparing to name his running mate, perhaps as early as today, and party stalwarts starting to gather in Denver for the Democratic National Convention next week, Democrats could barely contain their glee at McCain’s unforced error.
Obama’s campaign announced 16 events where supporters planned to focus on “McCain losing track of how many homes he owns.”
Tim Kaine, the Democratic governor of Virginia and a much-mentioned vice presidential prospect, took an early lead in mocking McCain.
“He couldn’t count high enough, apparently, to know how many houses he owns,” Kaine told CNN’s “American Morning.”
For Democrats, the kerfuffle carried a clear whiff of payback. Four years ago, Republicans turned a harsh spotlight on the five homes owned by the Democratic nominee, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, and his heiress wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry.
For Republicans, it was deja vu of another kind. Last month, one of McCain’s top economic advisors, former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, was forced to resign from the campaign after he told a newspaper that the United States was “a nation of whiners” who were suffering a “mental recession” over the economy.
By midafternoon, both campaigns were in full battle cry and sought to portray the other candidate as living an ostentatious lifestyle. Both campaigns called reporters, rushed out scathing TV attack ads, unveiled new websites and unleashed surrogates.
McCain, who huddled with advisors at his desert compound in Sedona, Ariz., said nothing in public. A nine-car motorcade took him to a nearby Starbucks early in the morning, where he ordered a large cappuccino. McCain otherwise avoided reporters.
Forced into damage-control mode, his campaign aides counterattacked to reinforce their claim that Obama is an elitist.
“Does a guy who made more than $4 million last year, just got back from vacation on a private beach in Hawaii, and bought his own million-dollar mansion with the help of a convicted felon really want to get into a debate about houses?” McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said in a statement. “Does a guy who worries about the price of arugula and thinks regular people ‘cling’ to guns and religion in the face of economic hardship really want to have a debate about who’s in touch with regular Americans?”
Most of Obama’s income stems from his two bestselling books and an advance on a children’s book. He and his family stayed at a friend’s home last week in Hawaii, where beaches, in fact, are all public. Obama spent part of his childhood in Hawaii, and his grandmother lives there.
Obama and his wife, Michelle, bought their only home, a three-story Georgian revival house in Chicago’s leafy Kenwood neighborhood, for $1.6 million in 2005. They probably could not have done that without help from Antoin Rezko, an early political patron. Rezko paid $625,000 to buy the adjoining lot from the home’s owner, who wanted to sell it in a package deal. Obama later bought a narrow strip of the Rezko lot.
In June, a federal jury convicted Rezko of mail fraud, money laundering and other crimes. None of the charges related to Obama or his home.
McCain earned a Senate salary of $161,708 and royalties of $176,508 last year from his books. His wife listed about $6 million in income from salary, dividends, capital gains and payments from trusts on her 2006 federal tax return.
Cindy McCain’s worth is estimated at as much as $100 million. She is the chairwoman of Hensley & Co., a privately held Phoenix-based distributor of Anheuser-Busch beer that she inherited from her father.
When in Washington, the McCains live in a modern three-bedroom condominium in a high-rise in Arlington, across the Potomac River in Virginia. It is assessed at $847,800.
In Arizona, the McCains lived until several years ago in Cindy McCain’s childhood home in Phoenix, which was featured in the glossy pages of Architectural Digest in 2005. They sold it soon after and moved into a $4.7-million condominium in Phoenix.
The McCains spend weekends, if possible, in the remote rolling hills of Sedona. Their 15-acre compound features a modest residence and several guest cabins beside a creek sheltered in a verdant box canyon. The assessed value is $1.6 million.
The McCains also spent $4.7 million to buy two beachfront condos near the posh Hotel del Coronado in San Diego County.
In an interview with Vogue magazine, Cindy McCain confessed that her husband, who has suffered from skin cancer and must avoid the sun, wasn’t initially in favor of buying oceanfront property.
“When I bought the first one, my husband, who is not a beach person, said, ‘Oh, this is such a waste of money; the kids will never go,’ ” she said. “Then it got to the point where they used it so much I couldn’t get in the place. So I bought another one.”
A McCain campaign spokesman did not immediately respond to an e-mail request for the number of rental and investment properties Cindy McCain and her children own through trusts and partnerships.
One such trust owns a two-bedroom condominium in La Jolla, where Cindy McCain’s aunt lives, according to the campaign.
In 2007, another family trust owned by Cindy McCain purchased a $700,000 condo in a Phoenix loft building, apparently for the McCains’ adult daughter, Meghan.
The same trust bought a third Phoenix condo for $830,000 two months later.
Presidential candidates often assume lowbrow tastes to show blue-collar sympathies, if not actual roots.
The goal is to be seen as a man -- or woman -- of the people.
Recall George H.W. Bush, the senator’s son and scion of upper-crust Kennebunkport, Maine, munching on pork rinds on his way to presidential victory in 1988. Four years later, he marveled aloud at his first apparent encounter with a supermarket bar-code scanner -- and lost to Bill Clinton, who knew the price of a gallon of milk.
Bloggers already have made light of McCain’s standard footwear: black leather Ferragamos that retail for $520. But no presidential candidate has ever owned so many homes that he couldn’t come up with a number when asked.
A McCain aide, speaking on background, admitted Thursday that the campaign hoped the fracas would die down quickly.
“This obviously is not the conversation we intended to have,” the aide said ruefully.
Drogin reported from Washington and Reston from Sedona. Times staff writers Stuart Silverstein in Virginia, Dan Morain in Sacramento and Maura Reynolds in Washington, and Times researchers Scott Wilson and Janet Lundblad in Los Angeles, contributed to this report.
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A look at some of the real estate owned by John and Cindy McCain and their children, held in trusts, limited liability companies and partnerships:
* The family’s compound includes a main residence and two guest cabins. The property, about nine acres split into four adjacent parcels, has been assessed at $1,420,450. The McCains also co-own a six-acre parcel that has been assessed at $229,500.
* A 6,586-square-foot condominium purchased for $4.7 million.
* A 1,395-square-foot condominium, purchased in 2007 for $700,000, which is believed to be occupied by the McCains’ daughter Meghan.
* A 1,979-square-foot condominium purchased for $830,000 in 2007.
* A 1,749-square-foot condominium, with three bedrooms and three bathrooms, purchased for $2.6 million.
* A 1,368-square-foot condominium, with two bedrooms and one bathroom, purchased in March for $2.1 million.
* John McCain’s residence when he is in Washington. The 2,089-square-foot, three-bedroom, three-bathroom condominium is valued at $847,800.
* A two-bedroom, two-bathroom condominium, occupied by a family member, was valued at more than $1 million in McCain’s 2007 Senate financial disclosure statement.
Sources: Los Angeles Times; property records