This was supposed to be the week John McCain unveiled his new campaign, more disciplined and acutely focused on the economy. The goal proved elusive: The presumptive Republican nominee spent the week cleaning up after controversial statements by himself and his surrogates, and trying to counter any impression that he overlooks the pain of struggling Americans.
McCain seemed to call Social Security a “disgrace,” was struck wordless on video when asked whether insurance companies should have to pay for birth control and, perhaps most damagingly, had to deny his own advisor’s assertion that, when it comes to the economy, America has become “a nation of whiners.”
Through the week, that dissonance undercut McCain’s effort to showcase his plans for the nation’s foundering economy. And it handed Barack Obama an opening to display sympathy for stressed Americans of the very sort who have cast a skeptical eye on the Democrat’s candidacy.
All candidates, including Obama, have had worse weeks. But, behind in the polls, the Arizona senator can hardly afford such diversion. His campaign remains frustrated by its central conundrum: Free-wheeling, unscripted events show McCain at his best, but are also most likely to spin off-kilter.
At a time when a candidate -- like a telemarketer -- must relentlessly repeat his theme in order to clinch the deal, McCain’s message has been erratic.
“He can still fix it, but it appears that given his temperament and his personality it’s hard for him to fix these problems,” said Linda Fowler, a Dartmouth College government professor who is closely watching the presidential contest. “The spontaneity of what he says, the fact that he’s unscripted -- at some point that begins to work against him in a general election where discipline is important.”
He got his moments
McCain’s week was sometimes refreshingly human. One mother of six talked to him by telephone during a town hall Thursday night over the sound of swishing water: The Centreville, Va., woman was washing dishes as she and the candidate commiserated about the high cost of sugar. Hundreds of women warmly received him Friday in Hudson, where he said women would benefit when he cut taxes and would suffer should Obama win in November.
His aides declared themselves pleased with the week, the first since the campaign’s management was reorganized. Senior advisor Mark Salter played down the difficulties and said the strategy of placing McCain on the high wire of town halls and lengthy discourses “feels right.”
“His greatest appeal is when people get a sense of how authentic he is, when he says, ‘I work for you, I don’t work for anybody else. I work for my country,’ ” Salter said.
But others further from the campaign, including Republicans who declined to be quoted criticizing the party’s unofficial nominee, characterized the week as a lost opportunity. One compared it to the period in the 2004 campaign when Democrat John F. Kerry got bogged down defending his service in Vietnam instead of advancing his proposals for the nation.
Series of difficulties
Typically, the standard would be lower for a campaign in the doldrums of summer. But with voter interest high this year, the campaigns presume that mistakes made now could reverberate more sharply in November. McCain’s week gave Democrats ammunition.
He opened it with a town hall in Denver. His message went awry in the first hour, after a young woman expressed concern that Social Security might not survive for her peers.
McCain explained that benefits would not be there for her unless Social Security was fixed, and then he seemed to criticize the system’s operating premise.
“Americans have got to understand that we are paying present-day retirees with the taxes paid by young workers in America today,” he said. “And that’s a disgrace. It’s an absolute disgrace and it’s got to be fixed.” He explained later that by “disgrace” he meant that the system would run out of money.
Barely had Democrats seized on that comment when word surfaced that Carly Fiorina, a McCain advisor and the former head of Hewlett-Packard, had told a political breakfast in Washington that women -- a group the senator was courting this week -- were upset that some insurance companies covered Viagra but not contraception.
Before long, McCain opponents pointed out that the senator had voted against bills that would have required insurers to cover birth control.
McCain added to the contretemps when he told a reporter that he did not recall his vote. In a squirming response, replete with two long pauses, McCain neither offered the answer his campaign gave -- that he opposed all mandates -- nor expressed any familiarity with the issue Fiorina had raised two days earlier.
“It’s something that I had not thought much about,” he said in a video reel that played for days on cable and online.
The final difficulty arose the next day, when McCain economics advisor and former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm was quoted as saying that the country was whining about the economy. After McCain distanced himself from the remarks, Gramm reiterated them and drew mocking criticism from Obama and other Democrats.
Analysts said that even though McCain did not utter the comments, he will suffer from them, much as the Illinois senator was hurt by the incendiary statements of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.
A boon to his rival
“You are indeed judged by the company you keep,” said Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers political scientist. Baker and others said the comment gave an entree to Obama among the economically downtrodden, who in the Democratic primary had sided with New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“He’s just been looking for an opening,” Baker said.
A poll released this week demonstrated the demands on McCain. Obama led McCain 48%-40% in the survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. More worrisome for McCain, Democrats were more enthusiastic. And voters overall gave Obama far better grades for making his case.
McCain was confronted directly with those sentiments Thursday by a man at a Michigan event. “I’m completely committed to not voting for Barack Obama; what I’m trying to do is get to a situation where I’m excited about voting for you,” Rich Keenan, who owns a flag factory, told McCain.
The danger for McCain is that his remark on Social Security and Gramm’s on the economy could merge with earlier ones -- McCain’s offhanded assertion that he didn’t understand the economy as he should, his acknowledgment that some American troops could stay in Iraq for 100 years -- to define him.
“The message is pretty confused, and it has been so throughout the campaign,” said Dartmouth’s Fowler. In a typical election year, she said, the comments might not register. But this year, with interest skyrocketing, “it may send a message that this is a guy who doesn’t really know what he will do if he’s president.”