McCain Gaffes Could Undercut Message on Economy, Foreign Affairs

With focus on economy, misstatements derail his campaign message.

ByABC News
September 19, 2008, 2:59 PM

Sept. 22, 2008 — -- In recent days, John McCain has made a series of verbal gaffes that have undercut his campaign claim that he is the candidate who is ready to safeguard the nation's struggling economy, some political analysts believe.

The verbal stumbles may have wider ramifications for the GOP presidential pick by reminding voters of earlier flubs and calling into question other aspects of his candidacy, including his foreign policy experience, analysts told

The most damaging gaffe came Sept. 15, when McCain said "the fundamentals of our economy are strong," which was a hard sell because it occurred on the same day that venerable firms Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch were collapsing.

While that statement is likely to haunt McCain through the rest of the campaign, he went on to make several other slips in the following days.

On Thursday, the Arizona senator said he would "fire" Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Chris Cox. However, while the president nominates and the Senate confirms the SEC chair, a commissioner of an independent regulatory commission cannot be removed by the president.

Trying to recover the next day, McCain confused the SEC with the FEC, the Federal Election Commission.

"I believe that the chairman of the FEC should resign and leave office and be replaced," McCain said Friday during a speech to the Green Bay Chamber of Commerce, a verbal goof immediately posted on YouTube.

And on the day before the Federal Reserve System bailed out American Insurance Group with an $85 billion loan, McCain insisted that taxpayers' money should not be used to rescue AIG. The next day, he said it was appropriate to protect the millions of Americans who have insurance policies and accounts at AIG.

McCain didn't help his image as a candidate who understands the economic problems of regular voters when he was asked last month how many houses he owned. After hemming and hawing, McCain said he would have to ask his staff.

"I think - I'll have my staff get to you," McCain told Politico's Jonathan Martin and Mike Allen in August. "It's condominiums where - I'll have them get to you."

McCain since responded to the economic crisis by ratcheting up his rhetoric about reforming Washington and cracking down on Wall Street regulation.

But political analysts argue that McCain's flubs have undermined his claim to be ready to take charge of the country's economy, and have given his Democratic rival Barack Obama an opening on the economic crisis, which will likely be the defining issue of this election.

The verbal missteps have also drawn attention to McCain's age.

"The question is who in this crisis looked more presidential, calm and unflustered. It wasn't John McCain," ABC News' Sam Donaldson said Sunday on "This Week With George Stephanopoulos."

"His talking points have gotten all mixed up and I think the question of age is back on the table," Donaldson said. McCain is 72 while Obama is 47.

The economic meltdown is uncharted territory for both presidential candidates, but McCain is at a particular disadvantage when it comes to the economy. Polls have indicated that voters put more faith in the Illinois senator and the Democrats in handling the country's fiscal health, and McCain's bumbles serve to highlight what is perceived as his weakest issue.

Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C., argued that McCain's economic response last week point to his discomfort with economic issues rather than any "senior moment" by the Republican senator.

"Whenever the issue turns to the economy, McCain's going to be at a disadvantage," Hess said.

"No matter how far he tries to run away from it, he still represents the party in power that voters may blame for this crisis," Hess said, "and he has established a reputation of being stronger on international affairs and national security and has made it clear that the economy is not his strong suit."

"I do think McCain is more comfortable talking about foreign policy issues," said Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, a well-respected nonpartisan political newsletter.

"But the news of the day is forcing him to talk more about economic issues and pushing him outside that comfort zone," Gonzales said, noting Obama likes to remind voters that McCain once quipped that economics isn't his strongest issue.

Dan Schnur, a leading Republican media strategist who was the chief adviser for McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, believes that when McCain said the economy's fundamentals were strong he was trying to keep the nation calm during a moment of crisis.