By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 24, 2008
It seemed like a great way to counter Obamamania. Sen. John McCain would board a helicopter in New Orleans today, skim quickly over the Gulf of Mexico and land on an oil rig -- a made-for-TV moment to highlight his call for offshore drilling, an issue that Republicans believe will be a big winner in November.
Then came Hurricane Dolly, a Category 2 storm that made a helicopter ride impossible. And then, improbably, a 600-foot oil tanker collided with a barge on the Mississippi River, creating a 12-mile oil slick and causing diesel fumes to waft over the city's French Quarter. The trip was off.
In this campaign, it seems, McCain just can't catch a break.
Through a series of missteps, gaffes and bad luck, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee has endured a difficult week in what has been a choppy campaign. He now has no major event to offset Sen. Barack Obama's speech at Berlin's famed Victory Column, where a huge turnout is expected. Instead, he will be in Columbus, Ohio, speaking at a nighttime cancer event.
"An extra day spent in Ohio is not really a problem," senior aide Mark Salter said, insisting that a bit of bad luck does not make a trend, even as the campaign was scrambling to fill the time.
"There's a hurricane; we had to cancel an event," he said with a shrug after McCain spent a rainy day in northeast Pennsylvania attending a town hall meeting in Wilkes-Barre and a fundraiser, and commiserating with a couple at a grocery store in Bethlehem about the high price of food. "That's not something that's going to happen every day. I'm not going to worry about it."
Before his overseas trip, Obama faced questions about the wisdom of his pledge to remove U.S. troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office, should he be elected. But as the week began, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appeared to endorse that timeline, and the Bush administration said that it supports a "time horizon" for withdrawing troops. Suddenly, it was McCain who was forced to explain his opposition to the withdrawal plan.
Meanwhile, Obama's trip to the war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq, followed by stops in Jordan, Israel and Europe, created a media frenzy, dominating the morning and evening network shows, cable chatter and the front pages of newspapers. The McCain campaign grumbled about the media's "love affair" with Obama, even doling out "Junior Varsity" badges to reporters who were "left behind" to cover the Republican. But it was McCain who invited the situation, after mocking Obama for weeks for not visiting Iraq and Afghanistan as a presidential candidate.
On the other side of the world, Obama seemed blessed with perfect weather and perfect timing.
At one stop, the senator from Illinois was filmed in a Kuwaiti gym shooting a basketball from behind the three-point line. Handing a microphone away, he dribbled a bit, struck a couple of poses for the troops, and warned, "I may not make the first one, but I'll make one eventually." He then let it fly.
The competing visual from McCain was the 71-year-old senator riding in a golf cart during his visit to Kennebunkport, Maine, to meet with George H.W. Bush at the former president's retreat.
McCain also made a series of small gaffes this week, referring to the "Iraq-Pakistan border" and later to the country of "Czechoslovakia," neither of which exist. And his mistaken comment yesterday that the troops increase in Iraq began a movement called the Awakening, which started months before the military buildup, forced a day of explanations from his campaign.
McCain's camp attempted to seize the spotlight, and maybe change his luck, this week after columnist Robert D. Novak suggested that an announcement of a vice presidential pick may- be imminent. It wasn't, but aides dragged it out for more than a day -- even after Novak said that the campaign leaked the rumor and that he may have been used to try to grab attention from Obama.
McCain, who has been known to carry good-luck talismans -- a pair of L.L. Bean shoes, a feather, a flattened penny -- has had fortune smile on him now and again. The New York Times handed the senator from Arizona a public relations gift this week by rejecting an article he had submitted to the editorial page to counter one the paper ran from Obama last week, making it easy to bash the liberal media.
And on his recent trip to Colombia, McCain was in the right place at the right time as the government there announced a raid in which long-held hostages were released.
Despite his recent problems, McCain remains just six percentage points behind Obama, according to an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll released last night, unchanged from the survey's results a month ago.
Still, more pitfalls lie ahead.
As both campaigns look toward their conventions in late August and early September, observers have noted more than once that Obama's speech happens to be scheduled for Aug. 28, the 45th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. McCain's speech, on the other hand, will fall on Sept. 4, the opening night of the NFL season, which features a game between the Washington Redskins and the Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
Staff writer Robert Barnes contributed to this report.