As Aides Map Aggressive Race, McCain Often Steers Off Course

At town hall events, John McCain has sometimes taken a defensive stance.
At town hall events, John McCain has sometimes taken a defensive stance. (By Mary Altaffer -- Associated Press)
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By Juliet Eilperin and Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 31, 2008

KANSAS CITY, Mo., July 30 -- Sen. John McCain last week delivered one of his sharpest critiques yet of Sen. Barack Obama's Iraq policies, carefully reading a prepared speech that accused his Democratic rival of failing the commander-in-chief test and promoting ideas that would force American troops to "retreat under fire."

But just hours after his crisp performance, the Republican presidential candidate blurred his own message with an offhand comment to a television interviewer that Obama's proposal for a 16-month time frame for removing combat troops from Iraq might be a "pretty good timetable." That seemed to run counter to his attempts to cast Obama as naive on foreign policy, and it sent his aides scrambling.

As Election Day nears, McCain's campaign is adopting the aggressive, take-no-prisoners style of Karl Rove, the GOP operative who engineered victories for President Bush. The campaign continued the attack Wednesday with a sarcastic television ad deriding Obama as a "celebrity," part of an intensifying effort to cast him as an elitist.

But the sharp-edged approach is being orchestrated for an unpredictable candidate who often chafes at delivering the campaign's message of the day. It is that freewheeling style that has made him popular with voters and cemented his reputation for candor and straight talk.

McCain, who was most comfortable as an underdog in the unscripted environment of the New Hampshire primary, makes his advisers cringe as he delivers the attack line -- and then keeps talking. In that respect, he is no Bush, his handlers say.

The result is a presidential campaign that sometimes rolls between serious policy discussions about the nation's future and gotcha politics aimed at undermining his opponent's character. McCain himself is often caught in the middle, proclaiming his commitment to the former while participating in the latter.

For weeks, McCain's staff has been criticized for running a campaign that has no clear message. The decision by the senator from Arizona to have former Bush strategist Steve Schmidt run daily operations was described as a way to get control of the message. But some Republicans outside the campaign believe that not much has changed since then.

"It's the candidate," said one GOP strategist with close ties to the campaign, who added that efforts to identify a theme for each week quickly unravel as McCain veers off message in his public comments.

At a town hall meeting in Pennsylvania last week, McCain stood before a banner that proclaimed "Energy Solutions" and "The Lexington Project" -- the moniker his campaign coined for an energy proposal featuring a combination of conservation efforts, expanded offshore drilling and nuclear power.

McCain rambled quickly through the details and showed little appreciation for the art of "branding."

"I call it the Lexington Project, my friends, but you can call it anything you want," he said.

Several weeks ago senior aide Mark Salter said McCain would stop kicking off town hall meetings with news "ripped from the day's headlines" and would instead deliver a formal introduction on a single theme. That effort lasted just a few weeks: In his opening remarks at Tuesday's town hall, McCain hopscotched from the war to pork-barrel spending.

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