McCain Battles 'Unforced Errors' to Stay on Message

Terror comment muddles McCain's speeches on energy and the environment.

ByABC News via logo
June 24, 2008, 8:44 AM

June 24, 2008— -- Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is having trouble staying on message -- or, more specifically, his campaign is.

McCain had hoped to spend the early part of this week discussing energy and the environment but instead the Republican presidential candidate found his message muddled when one of his top advisers told Forbes magazine in an upcoming issue that a new terror attack on Americans "certainly would be a big advantage to him."

McCain was taken aback when confronted by the remark made by Charlie Black, one of his top strategists, and his campaign was accused of being either insensitive or calculating in making the remark.

The candidate quickly condemned his adviser's comments Monday, and Black was sent out to read a statement apologizing for what he said.

A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found McCain leads by 14 points in trust to handle terrorism and holds a slim 6-point edge on international affairs over his rival, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., although Obama trumps McCain by 2-1 or more on environmental issues and issues of special concern to women; by 15 to 20 points on health care, gas prices, the economy and energy policy; and by 8 points on taxes.

Michael O'Hanlon, a terrorism expert with the Brookings Institution, told "Good Morning America" Tuesday, "Certainly, Charlie Black can make the argument he did, and he's got reasonable grounds to do it. But it seemed too callous, like he was looking for political benefit out of something that if it happened would have a terrible human cost."

The headlines and airtime generated by the flap dominated the campaign's coverage on a day that McCain hoped the headline would be about his proposed $300 million prize for whoever could produce a new super car battery that would help reduce pollution and the country's reliance on foreign oil.

Richard Ben-Veniste, a member of the 9/11 commission, held a conference call with reporters Tuesday to discuss Black's comment -- a day when McCain will be in California hoping to focus press coverage on his plans for the environment.

George Stephanopoulos, ABC News' chief Washington correspondent, said the McCain camp "is tearing their hair out over it this morning."

The terror remark also allowed the Obama camp to claim Black's remarks wasn't a gaffe but a calibrated tactic straight out what Obama calls "the Bush-Cheney political playbook of fear."