When the truth hurts

In the political white heat of the US presidential race, the truth cannot set a candidate free, it can only get them into trouble.

The most intense and expensive White House race ever is throwing up a rich catalogue of gaffes and unwisely uttered truths.

Republican candidate John McCain, and Democrat Barack Obama have seen their campaigns rocked in the last few days by supporters who planted their feet squarely in their mouths.

Former senator Phil Gramm, a top McCain advisor, undercut his boss’s fervent efforts to show voters he gets their economic plight when he declared America a "nation of whiners" mired in a recession of the mind.

Civil rights icon Jesse Jackson insists he is a passionate Obama supporter — but appeared to betray his real views in a whispered aside on an open microphone.

"I want to cut his nuts off," Jackson said, accusing the Illinois senator of talking down to black people.

A few weeks back, Charlie Black, a top McCain advisor sparked a political furore when he suggested a fresh terrorist strike on the United States could hand McCain, who anchors his campaign on national security, a big advantage.

These are classic examples of people blurting out things they believe, but would be wise to keep to themselves — or as columnist Michael Kinsley once famously put it: a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth.

Sometimes the comments of a close advisor raise questions about the credibility of a candidate’s campaign trail rhetoric.

Obama foreign policy advisor Samantha Power took a trip to Britain during the primary campaign, and appeared to leave her discretion back home.

First she branded Obama’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton a "monster" a sentiment perhaps shared by some inside his campaign, but which jars with the high-minded tone he has adopted for his White House bid.

Then in another interview, Power suggested a president Obama would not necessarily be bound by promises to start immediate troop withdrawals from Iraq.

She resigned shortly afterwards.

Mystery still surrounds the row sparked when Obama was decrying the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) also in the primary campaign.

A Canadian government memo quoted one of his advisors Austan Goolsbee as reassuring Canadian officals that this was just campaign rhetoric.

The campaign said Goolsbee had been misrepresented, and he survived.

It’s not just surrogates who can get foot-in-mouth disease. McCain’s sense of humor sometimes causes him problems.

Last week, as tensions with Tehran flared, McCain was told by a journalist that US cigarette exports to Iran had soared. "Maybe that’s a way of killing them," he quipped, before hurriedly adding: "I meant that as a joke."

It was not the first time McCain had joked about Tehran. "That old Beach Boys song, bomb Iran" he told supporters at a campaign event last year "Bomb, bomb, bomb …" he sang to the tune of the hit "Barbara Ann."

Perhaps the underlying message of all these missteps is that in a campaign as long, and intense as this, with the prospect of YouTube infamy beckoning at every public event, candidates and their backers are bound to make mistakes.

Clinton’s bid for the Democratic nomination may just be a memory now, but she left behind some classic campaign missteps.

One of her top New Hampshire supporters Bill Shaheen put into words what many of her aides may have been thinking in private — how would Republicans exploit Obama’s admitted drug use as a rebellious youth.

"It’ll be, when was the last time, did you ever give drugs to anyone?" Shaheen said, and was soon cut lose by the Clinton campaign.

Even Bill Clinton, renowned as the most sophisticated politician of his generation, stumbled into verbal minefields.

The former president branded Obama’s anti-Iraq war record a "fairy tale" prompting Obama supporters to complain he was belittling the first African American with a real chance of winning the presidency.