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Say what? The 2008 presidential campaign theme could be “Oops! What I meant was …”
Just about every Republican and Democrat has flubbed an answer to a question or made a borderline inappropriate comment — some so uncomfortable they make you cringe — only to take back the remarks or seek to clarify them later when under fire.
This month alone, Republican Mitt Romney backtracked from a comment about his sons’ lack of military service. Rival Rudy Giuliani retreated from his suggestion that he spent as much time as Sept. 11 rescue workers at the ground zero site and was exposed to the same health risks. Democrat Bill Richardson stumbled over a question about whether homosexuality was a choice. All sought to skirt controversy by quickly explaining themselves.
It is happening so often, “you’d think it’s deliberate!” quipped G. Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania.
Joking aside, he said: “I don’t think you can go through this grueling ordeal and not find even the most seasoned politician who isn’t susceptible to misspeaking or a malaprop here or there. We’re seeing some genuinely real moments as these candidates are in the pressure cooker.”
Chalk up the glut of apologies and clarifications to changing times.
Candidates of all stripes have become extremely sensitive to the Internet era and painfully aware of video-sharing Web sites such as YouTube that allow images and audio to be posted online immediately.
At the same time, it has become routine for campaigns to send out “trackers” with recorders to capture a rival’s every appearance in hopes of catching an election-altering misstep to use in a television ad or Web video.
“In the olden days, this wasn’t an issue because if you said something that could be problematic, you just denied that you said it,” said Jenny Backus, a Democratic consultant. “These days, it’s too easy to have cold, hard proof.”
“You’ve got to have a strategy to combat the YouTube video,” she added. “Now, one mistake can be replayed often.”
Typically, Republican and Democratic strategists say, candidates who slip up take one of two damage-control avenues.
Some opt to stand firmly behind their comments and plow forward with their campaigns. They believe that apologizing or clarifying is a sign of weakness and that sticking to their viewpoints shows strength and projects self-awareness. The risk is that they can appear stubborn and unwilling to admit mistakes.
More often, candidates decide to acknowledge their errors or explain their comments quickly. The hope is to take blunders off the table and blunt the impact of any attacks. But they also could appear as though they do not mean what they say and will change positions when they feel the heat.
Regardless of which path they choose, strategists say, each situation must be handled individually and candidates must strike a balance between being authentic and being willing to admit they are wrong.
“I’d rather be who I am and make mistakes than come across as this very carefully scripted, totally handled person. I think people are so sick of that,” said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican whose words sometimes have gotten him in trouble. “People will forgive me for a mistake more than they’ll forgive me for phoniness. And, if they don’t, then I’m not their guy.”
Huckabee once referred to Arkansas as a “banana republic” and, on another occasion, jokingly attributed his 110-pound weight loss to spending time in a concentration camp.
Among the recent gaffes:
_Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, defended his five sons’ decisions not to enlist in the military and said “one of the ways my sons are showing support for our nation is helping me get elected.” Later, the Republican said he misspoke, explaining: “I didn’t mean in any way to compare service in the country with my boys in any way.”
_Giuliani, the New York City mayor during the terrorist attacks, claimed he was at ground zero “as often, if not more, than most of the workers” and was exposed to the same health risks. After drawing the ire of some firefighters, he acknowledged: “I could have said it better” and “What I was saying was: ‘I’m there with you.'”
_Richardson, New Mexico’s governor, said “It’s a choice” and then “you know, I’m not a scientist” when gay-rights activists asked during a forum whether people are born gay or whether they choose homosexuality. He quickly clarified. The Democrat also has said, “I screwed up” when citing conservative Byron White as a model Supreme Court justice.
_John McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona known for his off-the-cuff style, twice has clarified comments. In separate instances, he referred to U.S. lives lost in Iraq as “wasted” and used the term “tar baby,” which some people consider a racial epithet. In both cases, he quickly said he regretted his word choice.
_Barack Obama, a Democratic senator from Illinois, also apologized for using the word “wasted” about U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. During a campaign speech in Virginia, he drastically overstated the death toll in the springtime tornado in Kansas, saying, “Ten thousand people died — an entire town destroyed.” The actual death toll was 12.
“There are going to be times when I make mistakes,” Obama said then, recognizing his mistake before his speech ended.
Even unofficial candidates are not immune.
Fred Thompson, a Republican expected to enter the race in September, offered an explanation after Democrats assailed him for saying “we’re living in the era of the suitcase bomb” as he bemoaned illegal immigration from Cuba.
In 2006, several politicians learned the hard way that a slip of the tongue could have disastrous consequences. Most prominent was Republican Sen. George Allen of Virginia, who lost his re-election bid after he referred to a young man of Indian descent as “macaca,” which some consider a racial slur.
Similarly, Democrat John Kerry endured crushing fallout when said young people who do not study hard would likely “get stuck in Iraq.” Republicans seized on the remark. Days went by before Kerry apologized after cajoling by Democratic leaders in Congress.
The episode virtually guaranteed that the 2004 Democratic nominee wouldn’t run for president again.
The lesson? Watch what you say.