The Gaffe Patrol

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 23, 2008; 8:50 AM

We interrupt the nonstop coverage of Barack Obama's overseas trip to bring you some breaking whispers about John McCain.

He has been making a series of verbal slips -- invariably described as "gaffes" -- that are starting to ricochet from liberal blogs to the mainstream media. And fairly or not, some critics are suggesting the 71-year-old Republican candidate is showing his age.

McCain referred to the "Iraq/Pakistan border" in a "Good Morning America" interview; since there is no such border he must have meant Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has twice referred to Czechoslovakia, a country that ceased to exist in 1993; mixed up Sunnis and Shiites; and identified Vladimir Putin as president of Germany.

Aides to the Arizona senator dismiss the missteps as meaningless, noting that their man is far more accessible to journalists than Obama. "When you engage with reporters from 8:30 a.m. till 8 at night, you're bound to make a gaffe," says McCain communications director Jill Hazelbaker. "People are yearning for the kind of president who takes tough questions, and that's who John McCain is."

As for the candidate's septuagenarian status, Hazelbaker says: "I'd encourage anyone who has concerns about John McCain's age to join him on the campaign trail. He keeps an exhausting schedule -- often visiting two or three states a day -- answering dozens of questions from voters and the media along the way."

With Katie Couric, Charlie Gibson and Brian Williams traveling overseas to interview Obama this week, a debate has erupted over the imbalance in media attention. Last week, says a Project for Excellence in Journalism study of print and electronic coverage, Obama was a significant or dominant factor in 83 percent of election stories, and McCain in 52 percent. The McCain camp yesterday sent out a mocking video compilation of pundits praising the Illinois Democrat, saying: "The media is in love with Barack Obama. If it wasn't so serious, it would be funny."

But there is a counter-narrative, which has taken root on the left, that McCain is the one being treated with journalistic kid gloves. In this view, Obama's every utterance is scrutinized while McCain, who enjoyed warm relations with reporters during his 2000 White House campaign, pays little for blunders.

Dan Abrams, the host of MSNBC's "Verdict," told viewers Monday that "gaffe after gaffe after gaffe come from John McCain and they are forgotten . . . There is no way Barack Obama would be able to get away with something like this."

Politico catalogued the errors on its Web site yesterday, saying: "McCain's mistakes raise a serious, if uncomfortable question: Are the gaffes the result of his age? And what could that mean in the Oval Office?"

The question is fair, says veteran analyst Charlie Cook of National Journal. "People wonder if McCain is kind of like a pitcher seven or eight years past his prime and misses a few here and there," he says. "When you're about to turn 72, people are going to be watching to see if you're slipping."

Of course, a 46-year-old candidate can slip as well. Obama told reporters in Jordan yesterday that "Israel is a strong friend of Israel's," obviously meaning to say the United States.

Still, Obama supporters are turning up the volume on what they see as a slanted approach.

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