McCain's Biggest Foe: His Big Mouth

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) has made an incredible comeback from last summer's low point in the campaign. He managed much of it by speaking early and often with the national media, who love to quote the "maverick" and his "straight talk."

But speaking to the press presents a problem, too. McCain has made gaffes in the last several weeks, and his campaign may have to scramble to stop the senator from saying something incredibly stupid on the trail.

Candidates have to be particularly careful not to feed their foes material. The worst thing for a candidate is to appear as though he or she has flip-flopped on an important issue. Consider John Kerry's "I voted for the bill before I voted against it," debacle in 2004.

Nick Ragone, a public relations executive and author of a new book on presidential politics, said:
"The book on McCain has always been that his straight talk and candor -- while two of his strengths -- sometimes get him in trouble. When you're running for president, you can't be off message even for a second, because the quote can live in perpetuity on the Web and on YouTube. He's finding that out with his "100 years in Iraq" sound bite regarding U.S. military presence in Iraq. He can't make mistakes like that if he wants to win."

McCain had two similar boo-boos regarding Iraqi factions in the last two weeks. Yesterday, he said about Muqtada al-Sadr, an influential Shi'a cleric:
"I said he was still a major player and his influence is going to have to be reduced and gradually eliminated."
Al-Sadr had embarrassed Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's troops last week, forcing al-Maliki to call for a cease-fire, which was facilitated by Iran. This strengthened al-Sadr's hand.

Two weeks ago, McCain said of al-Sadr: "His influence has been on the wane for a long time." It appears McCain will change his story in order to mesh with his assertion that the "surge" has been working in Iraq.

McCain traveled to Europe and the Middle East a couple of weeks ago to expound on his experience on national security. While he avoided the silly scene of walking through an Iraqi market protected by a 100 marines, he didn't avoid getting the facts wrong on al-Qaeda and Iran.

In a press conference, McCain warned that al-Qaeda in Iraq continues to receive arms from Iran and to infiltrate from there, too. Oops: He was wrong. His friend and supporter Sen. Joe Lieberman (Ind., Conn.) whispered the right answer in his ear, and McCain corrected himself.

Either incident could have proved embarrassing to the campaign, in particular because he screwed up on one his supposed strengths: understanding security. Lucky for McCain, the media offers him some leeway. His frequent media appearances seem to have earned him a few mulligans.

Furthermore, the average American has very little clue about what's actually happening in Iraq. A recent media study from the Project for Excellence in Journalism showed that coverage of the war has sunk to an all-time low.

McCain has also tried to downplay his most aggressive comments on the Middle East. He's abandoned the phrase "Islamo-fascism" and has changed his tune to diplomacy. Appearing at the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles, he said:
"We cannot build an enduring peace based on freedom by ourselves, and we do not want to. We have to strengthen our global alliances as the core of a new global compact -- a League of Democracies -- that can harness the vast influence of the more than one hundred democratic nations around the world to advance our values and defend our shared interests."
This move to the middle may be an effort to mitigate the Democrats' calls to improve America's stature in the world.

McCain has to be careful not to start singing "bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" anytime soon or face the prospect of blowing up his chances of winning in November.

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