With friends like these…

Former Republican Sen. Phil Gramm isn’t the first friend to give a presidential candidate heartburn. And based on recent history, another one will be along before John McCain or Barack Obama know it.

"You’ve heard of mental depression; this is a mental recession," Gramm, a leading supporter of McCain, said recently, a less-than- sympathetic description of an election-year economy that features rising joblessness, a spike in mortgage foreclosures and a declining stock market.

"We have sort of become a nation of whiners," he added — not all that helpfully in the opinion of the man he is trying to help win the White House.

"I strongly disagree," McCain told reporters in Michigan, a state with an unemployment rate of 8.5 percent in May. "Phil Gramm does not speak for me. I speak for me."

McCain’s the one discomforted this time.

But Obama’s known the same feeling. An unpaid adviser quickly became an unpaid former adviser this spring after calling Hillary Rodham Clinton a monster.

Not that Clinton escaped this type of embarrassment, either, in her bid for the White House. One of her national co-chairman once opined that Republicans would be looking for information on Obama’s admitted youthful drug use, a comment that caused a candidate-to-candidate apology.

The circumstances in these episodes vary, but often follow a predictable arc.

For starters, the surrogate or supporter usually serves a political purpose, which explains their presence within the campaign. Gramm, for example, is well-known for his conservative economic beliefs, and can presumably help McCain strengthen his ties to advocates of tax cuts who might otherwise view the presidential contender with suspicion.

In many cases, the person who instigates the controversy follows up with a claim of being quoted out of context. Or misunderstood. Or speaking off the record. None of these constitutes a denial, though, which would be an invitation to further difficulty in an Internet era.

An apology may be forthcoming, although Gramm has yet to make one. Sometimes there is a parting of the ways.

With or without an apology, the candidate makes clear his disagreement, as McCain did, and hopes the controversy fades.

Yet often, and understandably, a rival campaign seizes on the incident in hopes of gaining a political advantage.

Obama did in the current case. "Let’s be clear," he told an audience in Virginia as McCain struggled to escape the fallout of Gramm’s remarks. "This economic downturn is not in your head."

McCain’s had some practice at this sort of thing.

Not long ago, he rejected an endorsement from Texas pastor John Hagee after an audio recording made in the late 1990s surfaced in which the preacher suggested God sent Adolf Hitler to help Jews reach the promised land. "Crazy and unacceptable," McCain said of his erstwhile endorser. Hagee quickly said the parting was "best for both of us and the country."

Or at least for McCain’s campaign.

Clinton went down the same path in the case of Billy Shaheen, a prominent New Hampshire Democrat and national co-chairman who said last winter that if Obama won the nomination, Republicans would work hard to uncover unsavory aspects of his youth.

"It’ll be, ‘When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?’" said Shaheen, whose wife, Jeanne, is a former New Hampshire governor and is running for the U.S. Senate this year.

A round of apologies ensued, one from Shaheen and another from Clinton to Obama.

"As soon as I found out that one of my supporters and co-chairs in New Hampshire made a statement, asked a series of questions, I made it clear it was not authorized, it was in no way condoned, I didn’t know about it and he stepped down," she said.

Obama’s moment came when Samantha Power offered an unvarnished opinion of Clinton in a newspaper interview. "She’s a monster — that is off the record — she is stooping to anything," was the quote.

An apology soon followed in a statement in which Power called her own remarks inexcusable and contradictory to her admiration for Clinton.

By then, Obama had already called to bid his adviser good riddance.

And Clinton’s campaign followed up with an e-mail to supporters informing then of what had happened and seeking campaign donations "to show that there is a price to this kind of attack politics."

Of course, there are variations on the theme.

In the last few days, the Rev. Jesse Jackson mused in front of an open microphone about wanting to emasculate Obama, whom he said sometimes appears to be talking down to black audiences.

A novel idea, perhaps, of expressing support for a presidential candidate.

This time, it appeared the damage was done to the supporter, rather than the candidate.

Obama accepted an apology from Jackson.

And what did Jackson really mean?

"My support for Senator Obama’s campaign is wide, deep and unequivocal."


David Espo covers presidential politics for The Associated Press.