By Jonathan Weisman and Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 22, 2008
Sen. John McCain's inability to recall the number of homes he owns during an interview yesterday jeopardized his campaign's carefully constructed strategy to frame Democratic rival Barack Obama as an out-of-touch elitist and inspired a round of attacks that once again ratcheted up the negative tone of the race for the White House.
A week dominated by vice presidential speculation and the run-up to the Democratic National Convention was quickly overtaken by the McCain miscue. In an interview with Politico.com, the presumptive Republican nominee was asked how many houses he and his wife, Cindy, heir to a beer distributorship, owned.
"I think -- I'll have my staff get to you," McCain replied. "It's condominiums where -- I'll have them get to you."
Obama's campaign and the Democratic National Committee pounced with remarkable speed. By mid-morning, reporters had received a video log featuring Cindy McCain's childhood estate in Phoenix, an Architectural Digest spread on another property the McCains had owned previously, and tax records and photos detailing seven houses and condominiums -- in Coronado and La Jolla, Calif.; Phoenix and Sedona, Ariz.; and Arlington. By 11 a.m., the Obama campaign had produced a television advertisement titled "Seven" and was answering the question McCain could not.
"It's seven, seven houses, and here's one house Americans can't afford John McCain to move into," the ad concludes over an image of the White House. (If a California beachfront condo that Cindy McCain purchased for their children this year is included, the number of homes owned by the McCains rises to eight.)
That provoked a furious response by McCain campaign and Republican National Committee aides, who charged hypocrisy and argued that the senator from Illinois had received help purchasing his South Side Chicago mansion from businessman Tony Rezko, a convicted felon.
"Does a guy who made more than $4 million last year, just got back from vacation on a private beach in Hawaii and bought his own million-dollar mansion with the help of a convicted felon really want to get into a debate about houses?" asked McCain spokesman Brian Rogers.
The senator from Arizona also quickly assembled a response ad, in which a narrator intones, "Barack Obama knows a lot about housing problems." The spot raises Obama's relationship with Rezko, saying that "one of Obama's biggest fundraisers helped him buy his million-dollar mansion," and charges that in return "Rezko got political favors."
By the day's end, the Democratic National Committee was threatening to escalate the fight further by highlighting McCain's connections to the "Keating Five" savings and loan scandal, in which the senator ended up before the Senate ethics committee.
"They go Rezko, we go Keating," said a Democratic strategist, speaking on the condition of anonymity to divulge potential campaign strategy. "If they want to escalate, bring it on."
For a Democratic candidate suffering from a barrage of attacks on his "celebrity," McCain's inability to recall the scope of his family holdings was a timely break.
"I guess . . . if you don't know how many houses you have, then it's not surprising that you might think the economy was fundamentally strong," Obama told an audience in Chester, Va. "But if you're like me, and you've got one house, or you are like the millions of people who are struggling right now to keep up with their mortgage so they don't lose their home, you might have a different perspective."
Obama campaign aides and Democratic National Committee researchers had been sitting on film clips, tax records, photos and other information on McCain's real estate holdings for weeks. The now-defunct Progressive Media USA, a liberal activist group, had done polling on the potential line of attack and concluded that it alone would have little impact against McCain, whose "brand" as a maverick Republican has proved difficult to crack.
But Obama aides were collecting documentation of separate incidents they wanted to string together as a narrative: McCain economic adviser Phil Gramm's comment to the Washington Times that the United States was "a nation of whiners" stuck in a "mental recession" and overstating the current economic woes; a McCain assertion that the economy is fundamentally strong; and the Arizonan's comment Saturday at the Saddleback Civil Forum in California defining the threshold for being rich as an income of $5 million a year.
When McCain made his comment to Politico, Obama communications director Dan Pfeiffer flashed the green light.
Even if the slip doesn't resonate broadly with the electorate, it could have meaning for the one group Obama has had the most difficulty with: working-class white voters, said Democratic strategist Tom Matzzie.
It also muddles what had been a clear Republican line of attack on Obama. Throughout the summer, the GOP had worked furiously to turn one of Obama's greatest strengths -- his ability to whip his supporters into a passionate movement -- into a weakness, framing him as an inexperienced, featherweight celebrity who is not ready to lead. Obama's edge in many national polls has dwindled since that line of attack was launched.
But McCain's wealth was bound to eventually become entangled in the debate. The McCain campaign grudgingly released Cindy McCain's 2006 tax returns in May but refused to release the more detailed schedules that delve into the source of her wealth. Her 2007 tax returns have still not been released.
Those 2006 returns showed a woman with income that year of more than $6 million. Of that, just $299,418 came from wages and salary. The bulk of it -- $4.55 million -- came from real estate rentals, partnerships and other passive ventures.
Those real estate holdings include a Sedona ranch with three dwellings, worth $1.1 million; a Phoenix condominium suite that had originally been two units, worth $4.7 million; an $847,800 three-bedroom high-rise condo in Arlington; an oceanfront condo in La Jolla, Calif.; a half-million-dollar loft in Phoenix purchased for their daughter Meghan; another Phoenix condo, worth $830,000; and two beachfront condos in Coronado, Calif, one of which is valued at $2.7 million. The other was purchased just this year, as McCain was lamenting the difficulties that struggling Americans were facing just to make their mortgage payments. Cindy McCain told Vogue magazine the family needed the second condo because the first was getting too crowded as their family grew.
McCain's confusion could be rooted in the scattered nature of the family's holdings. Public records show they were purchased by various McCain family entities, with names such as Dream Catcher Family LLC and Wild River LLC, and at least one is listed as rental real estate.
The ferocity of the McCain campaign's response to Obama made it clear how seriously it viewed the potential for damage from the Arizonan's remarks.
"Does a guy who worries about the price of arugula and thinks regular people 'cling' to guns and religion in the face of economic hardship really want to have a debate about who's in touch with regular Americans?" Rogers demanded. In an interview, he was even more animated, saying Obama lived in a "frickin' mansion" in Chicago and adding that he is confident McCain resonates more with regular Americans.
"In terms of who's an elitist, I think people have made a judgment that John McCain is not an arugula-eating, pointy-headed-professor type based on his life story."
But recent events, some of them attributable to McCain or his advisers, have threatened McCain's regular-guy image.
Saturday night, during an appearance with the Rev. Rick Warren, an evangelical leader, McCain was asked to define the word "rich" and responded: "I think if you are just talking about income, how about $5 million?" Warren and the audience laughed, and McCain quickly added: "But seriously, I don't think you can -- I don't think seriously that -- the point is that I'm trying to make here, seriously -- and I'm sure that comment will be distorted -- but the point is that we want to keep people's taxes low and increase revenues."
McCain had distanced himself from Gramm after the "whiners" comment but welcomed him back to the campaign at a meeting of advisers last week.
And liberal bloggers have struck as well, pointing out that McCain's standard campaign uniform of blue "Navy" baseball cap and khakis is anchored by a distinctive pair of $500 Ferragamo loafers.
Staff writer Michael D. Shear and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.