McCain, Obama Struggle to Reign in Surrogates

Here is how it is supposed to work: candidate is endorsed by surrogate, preferably someone well-known, well-spoken, energetic and loyal. Surrogate travels the country, spreading candidate's message far and wide.

"A good surrogate serves as a validator," said Kevin Madden, former press secretary and senior adviser to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

"They can go out there and (speak) to a constituency that recognizes them as an expert on (an) issue, and that constituency can say, 'Here's somebody that's associating themselves with this candidate. I want to associate myself with this candidate, too.'"

Surrogate's First Principle: First Do No Harm

An ideal surrogate is someone who is recognizable, trusted by a large number of voters as an expert on certain issues, and who can garner the attention of the media. The surrogate is the candidate's representative, his or her spokesperson.

The surrogate's mission is to communicate the campaign's message forcefully and articulately. The old maxim that was taught to medical students for many centuries applies equally to surrogates: Primum non nocere, or first, do no harm.

"The more people speaking on behalf of the candidate, the greater risk that someone's going to veer off message," said Dan Schnur, a McCain campaign strategist in 2000. "So, you train them as best as you can (and) cross your fingers."

One prime danger is that, when asked a question, a surrogate will be tempted to offer his own opinion. No matter how worthy or insightful or interesting the surrogate may consider what he has to say, this is not always a good idea.

"Anytime you put someone out there to speak for the campaign, you risk attaching your campaign's name, your campaign's reputation, [on] words that may be controversial," Madden said.

That's what happened last week when former Texas Republican Sen. Phil Gramm, an ardent supporter of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was asked by a Washington Times reporter about the nation's economic woes.

Gramm replied, "You've heard of mental depression? This is mental recession," then, squirting a stream of fuel onto the blaze, he added, "You just hear this constant whining, complaining. We sort of became a nation of whiners," he said.

This was a classic example of an off-the-chain surrogate.

Not only were Gramm's remarks controversial -- he seemed to say people who were worried about the economy were a bunch of whiners, and that the perception of economic woes was largely in a figment of people's imagination -- but they undercut the message Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had been assiduously promoting all week: that he understands that people are worried about the economy and that his proposals are the answer.

Using the traditional euphemism of campaign idiom, one McCain campaign official called Gramm's remarks "a distraction."

McCain had no choice but to distance himself from his own surrogate and friend.

"Phil Gramm does not speak for me. I speak for me," McCain said, adding that Gramm, whose name has -- or now, had -- been mentioned as a possible Treasury secretary in a McCain administration: "I think that Sen. Gramm would be in serious consideration for ambassador to Belarus, although I'm not sure the citizens of Minsk would welcome that."

On Sunday, McCain surrogate Carly Fiorina, former Hewlett Packard CEO, pounded another nail into Gramm's coffin: "I don't think Sen. Gramm will any longer be speaking for John McCain," she said on "Meet The Press."

Speaking Their Mind

This was the same Carly Fiorina who triggered a less controversial flap herself just a few days earlier when she said, "There are many health plans that will cover Viagra but won't cover birth control medication. Those women would like a choice."

Distractingly off-message for a surrogate for a candidate who opposes abortion.

Then, oops, she did it again a few days later, telling Bloomberg's Al Hunt that McCain might support higher Social Security taxes, if a bipartisan coalition is "creative enough" to come up with a plan that would only impact wealthier Americans.

The McCain campaign said Monday the candidate believes Social Security can be fixed without raising taxes on anyone. Fiorina has -- or now, had -- been mentioned as a possible McCain running mate.

Sooner or later, what happened with these two McCain surrogates happens to almost every candidate.

In March, Samantha Power, one of Sen. Barack Obama's, D-Ill., top foreign affairs advisers, called Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., "a monster" in an interview.

Power compounded the problem by saying Obama's plan to withdraw all troops from Iraq within 16 months was just a "best case" scenario. Power was gone within days.

Clinton had her own problems with surrogates.

Bill Shaheen, Clinton's New Hampshire campaign co-chair and husband of Senate candidate and former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, got into hot water when he alluded to Obama's youthful drug use.

Former Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro raised eyebrows when she said, "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position."

And Clinton's own spouse, the former president, probably didn't do her any favors with his "fairy tale" quip regarding Obama's position on Iraq (albeit, the context in which it was said -- he was talking about Obama saying he'd always been against the Iraq war -- got lost in translation), and when he compared Obama winning the South Carolina primary to Jesse Jackson having done the same thing.

Madden says there is one cardinal rule that surrogates ignore at their own -- and their candidate's -- peril.

"Every time you talk to a surrogate before they go out and speak on behalf of the campaign ... (they) have to be sure that it's not about them. It's not about their ideas. It's not about what they believe. It's about what the campaign believes, what the campaign is doing."

Violate that rule and you'll very quickly become an ex-surrogate.