As Aides Map Aggressive Race, McCain Often Steers Off Course

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.

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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