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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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The campaign's focus on expanding its war chest sometimes compromises its ability to deliver a coherent message, since McCain's schedule is often dictated by the sites of fundraising events rather than an overarching theme. This week, for example, the presumptive GOP nominee has traveled from central California to San Francisco to Reno to Denver to Kansas City, holding as many fundraisers as public events.

The assault on Obama's capacity to lead continued Wednesday with the release of McCain's latest commercial, "Celeb," which compares Obama's ability to attract adoring fans to that of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.

In a news conference with reporters, campaign manager Rick Davis said the ad draws a distinction between Obama's popularity and McCain's appeal, which Davis said stems not from "celebrity" but from "actually having a political movement based on ideas and solutions for the American public."

Schmidt joined the conference call midway through to hammer the point. "There's no dispute that he's become the biggest celebrity in the world," Schmidt said of Obama. "The question that we are posing to the American people is this: Is he ready to lead yet?"

The new ad relies mainly on atmospherics, but it also delivers a harsh assessment of Obama's record, declaring that the Democrat "says he'll raise taxes on electricity." In fact, Obama opposes a "carbon tax," though he does favor a "cap and trade" plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions, which McCain also supports. The assertion is based on a comment that Obama made to a San Antonio paper in February: "What we ought to tax is dirty energy, like coal and, to a lesser extent, natural gas."

Obama's campaign responded to McCain's attacks Wednesday with an ad describing them as "the politics of the past."

On the stump in Missouri, Obama also said: "You know, I don't pay attention to John McCain's ads. Although I do notice that he doesn't seem to have anything to say very positive about himself. He seems to only be talking about me. You need to ask John McCain what he's for, not just what he's against."

But sometimes McCain is not his best spokesman.

At a town hall meeting Tuesday, a GOP voter posed a question McCain has heard everywhere from Sparks, Nev., to Dayton, Ohio: Why should Republicans support him?

"I think I speak for a lot of conservatives when I say I'm not very excited about this election," the questioner said, noting that he differs with McCain on issues including "amnesty" for illegal immigrants and the senator's support for "the global warming crowd's agenda."

But rather than rattle off his most conservative positions -- his opposition to abortion and support for the war -- he launched into a long explanation of his role in a compromise on judges, something that conservatives often criticize him for.

He sparked applause from the Republican audience by mentioning his support for conservative Supreme Court Justices John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr., but he then noted that he had backed liberal Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer as well.

McCain finished off what was supposed to be an explanation of why conservatives should back him with a pledge to push for a cleaner planet.

"I've stood up against my party many times," he said, "because I've done what I thought was right."

Barnes reported from Washington. Staff writer Michael D. Shear in Washington contributed to this report.

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