McCain Driving Debate, But Some Fear Swerving

Some Republicans say McCain's message has wavered in the hands of his campaign staff.
Some Republicans say McCain's message has wavered in the hands of his campaign staff. (Fred Chartrand - AP)
By Michael D. Shear and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 22, 2008

In the two weeks since Barack Obama became the presumptive Democratic nominee, John McCain has demonstrated a knack for driving the daily political debate, forcing his opponent to respond to a challenge to meet in town hall debates, accusing him of being "delusional" about terrorism and saying he flip-flopped on public financing for his campaign.

But even as McCain's strategists claim tactical victories, Republicans outside the campaign worry that underlying weaknesses in its organization and message are costing him valuable time to make the case for his own candidacy.

Allies complain that the campaign has offered myriad confusing themes that lurch between pitching McCain as a committed conservative one day and an independent-minded reformer the next, while displaying little of the discipline and focus that characterized President Bush's successful campaigns.

Several Republican supporters of the presumptive nominee said they were puzzled by a series of easily avoidable mistakes, including sloppy political stagecraft and poorly timed comments that undercut McCain's reputation as a maverick.

The grumbling intensified last week when McCain launched a television commercial declaring that he had "stood up" to Bush on global warming, on the same day he traveled to Houston to call for lifting the federal ban on offshore drilling.

Critics said the ad's message about the differences between McCain and Bush was lost when Bush endorsed the same coastal drilling proposal the next day.

"I'm baffled that the McCain guys have somehow managed to take a guy who practically had 'reform' tattooed to his forehead and turned him into the bastion of the status quo," said one Republican strategist, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The veteran strategist, who has not been asked to join the campaign, said the "devastating me-too chorus from Bush and [Vice President ] Cheney" on oil drilling is a "great example of the schizophrenia that surrounds their campaign."

Senior aides to McCain reject such criticisms as "armchair quarterbacking." They cite recent polls that show McCain only slightly behind Obama despite record low approval ratings for Bush and congressional Republicans. A Washington Post poll on Tuesday showed McCain trailing Obama by six percentage points.

"We feel very good about where our campaign is right now, and John McCain is running very competitively in an electoral environment that is otherwise very challenging for Republicans," said McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds.

The campaign faced inquiries yesterday from Democrats, who continued to raise legal questions about McCain's Friday trip to Canada, where he spoke at a $100-per-person luncheon and then met with business executives privately. Democrats demanded to know whether McCain's campaign received any money from foreign sources, since that would be illegal under U.S. law.

McCain spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said the $100 tickets sold by the Economic Club of Canada did not benefit the campaign and that the meeting with executives was not a fundraiser. Mark Adler, the chief executive of the club, said in an e-mail that "all ticket revenue was used to stage the event and luncheon," and that "the McCain campaign in no way benefited financially from this event." Hazelbaker said flatly that neither of the events was "a campaign event."

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