McCain Gaffes Could Undercut Message on Economy, Foreign Affairs

With focus on economy, misstatements derail his campaign message.

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.

"He was likely trying to be reassuring, but in this climate that wasn't going to work," Schnur said.

"The alternative would have been to keep trying to explain what he meant, and he could have just kept digging the hole deeper and deeper," Schnur said.

Verbal mistakes are perhaps unavoidable, given the frenetic campaign schedule and lack of sleep candidates endure. Obama has been cited for a few clunkers as well.

However McCain's latest missteps may remind voters of a series of verbal flubs that threaten to hurt his credibility on foreign affairs -- an area the McCain campaign is hoping to dominate.

Traveling in the Middle East in March to highlight his foreign policy expertise, McCain mangled which militant Islamic group was getting training in Iran. After Sen. Joe Lieberman whispered in his ear, McCain muddied things even more by saying, "I'm sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not al Qaeda."

During an interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer on "Good Morning America" in July, McCain bungled his geography when he referred to the Islamic militants fighting along the "Iraq/Afghanistan" border instead of the Pakistan/Afghanistan border.

McCain has referred repeatedly to Czechoslovakia, a country that ceased to exist in 1993 when it was split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

And while discussing Darfur, a region in Sudan, McCain said in June, "How can we bring pressure on the government of Somalia?" His senior adviser Mark Salter corrected him, saying, "Sudan."

Last year, McCain also mistakenly referred to Vladimir Putin of Russia -- after a trip to Germany -- as "President Putin of Germany."

However the McCain campaign insists voters don't care about verbal mistakes and point to Obama's verbal blunders.

"Barack Obama said there were 57 states," McCain campaign spokesman Brian Rogers told "Come on! Who cares! It doesn't matter."

Rogers added, "I think that some in the press need to find something more important to write about."

As Rogers noted, Obama has frequently misstated which city and state he's in.

During a campaign rally in Springfield, Ill., in August, Obama introduced his vice presidential candidate, Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., as "the next president."

Appearing via video at the Democratic convention after his wife's opening night speech, Obama said he was watching from St. Louis although he was actually 230 miles away in Kansas City, Mo.

While mistakes happen, political analysts argue McCain's frequent flubs on economic and foreign affairs have been more costly because they are on issues important to his campaign.

Hess said Friday's first presidential debate in Mississippi on foreign relations could benefit McCain.

However Hess argued that debates often highlight style over substance among presidential candidates, and how the candidates deliver their messages will be key.

"The debates are going to be more about how they looked and how well they articulate their positions and whether their messages were punchy or not," Hess said.

"The candidate who is best able to respond to these big issues in a clear way will be deemed the big winner out of the debate," he said.

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