The misadventures of Joe the Plumber were just the latest stumble for Republican John McCain as he veers from one idea to another in a thus-far elusive quest to slow Barack Obama’s momentum.
Joe Wurzelbacher was supposed to be the Republican presidential candidate’s ace in the hole — an average, working-class Joe whose dreams of something better might be thwarted by Obama’s plans. The Ohio plumber challenged Obama’s tax policies and got the Democratic presidential nominee to say he wanted to "spread the wealth around." McCain told Wurzelbacher’s story at the final debate Wednesday in a bid to paint Obama as a tax-raiser out of touch with regular Americans.
But Wurzelbacher’s story didn’t quite hold up under inspection: He isn’t licensed as a plumber in an Ohio county that requires one. He owes $1,200 in unpaid taxes. The dream purchase of the plumbing company where he works is a long way off no matter who wins the election. McCain acknowledged Thursday he hadn’t ever spoken to the man he’d suddenly made a central figure in his quest for the presidency; McCain didn’t speak with Wurzelbacher until Friday.
"Sorry, Joe," the Republican hopeful said Thursday on "The Late Show" with David Letterman for bringing Wurzelbacher a tornado of public attention he never sought.
The McCain campaign has always felt more improvisational than Obama’s well-oiled machine, and the Arizona senator’s years as a Navy pilot left him with a taste for daring feats. But recently, with polls showing McCain trailing Obama in several battleground states, his campaign operation has muddied McCain’s message and complicated his efforts to gain ground.
Policy proposals have been floated and postponed. Lines of attack have been launched, then abruptly changed. And Joe the Plumber, like Sarah Palin before him, was pushed onto the national stage without a complete examination.
"When you run a campaign without a strategy and everything becomes tactical and your tactics don’t work, you respond by finding other tactics," Republican consultant Ed Rollins said. "Unfortunately, that’s helped Barack paint the guy who is clearly better prepared to be commander in chief as erratic and not stable."
McCain has always said he prefers to be the underdog, and he rolled out a feisty speech this week vowing a spirited fight to Nov. 4. But he has at times also seemed exasperated with the state of affairs.
In an interview with a North Carolina television station this week, the Arizona senator said he didn’t know when he would return to the battleground state. "You know, my schedule lurches from day to day," he said, an edge in his voice.
Republican pollster John McLaughlin said the McCain operation is undergoing an experience very common among campaigns in their closing days.
"It’s the thrashing between the events you can’t control and what the proper message for the campaign should be," McLaughlin said. "In the past week, we’ve seen the McCain campaign thrashing."
McCain aides, meanwhile, carry on their duties with an acute sense of grievance against the national media, a group the candidate once jokingly referred to as his base.
On the campaign plane, aides berated a reporter for The New York Times after an editing error wrongly suggested McCain hadn’t pushed back against a supporter’s claim that Obama was an Arab. And a Reuters photograph released after the debate that captured a calm Obama next to McCain in a goofy, flailing pose reduced one aide to tears.
On a conference call with reporters Friday, campaign manager Rick Davis lamented that "there’s not more pressure and more scrutiny from the media" on Obama’s ties to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, whose voter registration efforts are being investigated in several states and by the FBI. Obama has said the group isn’t involved in his campaign’s registration drive.
Indeed, Obama’s relationship to ACORN is one of several arguments McCain aides hope will stick against the Illinois senator. But McCain moves from one attack to another without creating a consistent narrative about his rival.
Last week, both McCain and Palin spoke out against Obama’s loose association with ex-radical Bill Ayers a quarter-century after Ayers co-founded the violent Weather Underground, which protested the Vietnam war with bombing of government buildings. But the running mates mostly dropped Ayers from their stump speeches this week, though the campaign made automated "robo calls" into some states linking Obama to Ayers.
The financial crisis has also bedeviled McCain as polls show voters believe Obama would do a better job handing the economy. And McCain this week stepped on his own effort to unveil new proposals to help seniors and middle-class homeowners weather the crisis.
Last Sunday, aides hinted McCain would offer new proposals and McCain’s close friend South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham told CBS’ "Face the Nation" that McCain would likely announce them soon. But on Monday, aides said McCain would have nothing until later in the week while Obama outlined new plans that day to help seniors cope with the market meltdown.
McCain finally released his proposals Tuesday, which made it appear he was playing catch-up to Obama and put his speech in competition with President Bush’s announcement the government would spend $250 billion to buy partial ownership of leading banks.
"Everything that can go wrong in the last three weeks usually does, so you need to stay very, very calm and not let the wheels come off." Rollins said. "You’ve got to pick your strategy and stick with it. Now’s the time to be disciplined."
Beth Fouhy has covered the 2008 presidential campaign for The Associated Press.