Last week 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 adviser'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 toward 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 spiral out of control.
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McCain's week was sometimes refreshingly human; one Virginia mother of six talked to him during a call-in town hall Thursday night to the sound of swishing water as she was washing dishes and the candidate telephonically commiserated about the high cost of sugar. Hundreds of women warmly received him Friday in Wisconsin, 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 results in the first week since the campaign's management was reorganized. Senior adviser 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 farther from the campaign, including Republicans who declined to be quoted criticizing the party's unofficial nominee, characterized the week as a lost opportunity.
Attention on mistakes
Typically, the standard for a campaign in the doldrums of summer would be lower. 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 adviser 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 insurance companies covered Viagra but not contraception.
Shortly, 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 while he looked away from the camera, McCain neither offered the answer his campaign gave – that he opposed all mandates – nor expressed any familiarity with the issue Fiorina 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 the Internet.
The final difficulty arose the next day, when McCain economics adviser 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.