Huffpost Politics

AP: Road Still Bumpy For McCain's Retooled Bandwagon

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HUDSON, Wis. — Every presidential campaign has its hitches. For John McCain, they felt more like full-blown lurches this week, with nearly every step forward quickly offset by a misstatement or wisecrack that seemed to blow his message off course.

It was the week McCain hoped to show off his newly focused, smoother-running operation after he rearranged his campaign hierarchy and acknowledged errors in the staging of events and other matters.

But a joke about U.S. cigarettes killing Iranians, criticism of the Social Security program and word that one of his top economic advisers had called the country "a nation of whiners" suffering a "mental recession" undermined the Arizona senator's effort.

Democrat Barack Obama has had his own stumbles recently, but McCain's journey through the key election states of Colorado, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin was bumpy.

McCain said he is not worried.

"I'm very aware that, from time to time, some words of mine will be taken out of context," he told reporters Friday. "I'm not going to change the way our campaign is."

He said the people who attended his town hall meeting earlier that day in Hudson, Wis., "know my plan for the future of America. There was not a question about tobacco to Iran."

Still, the week's events seemed likely to sustain the worries of some Republicans who cringed when McCain gave a major speech in June before a garishly green background, and who scratched their heads during his recent visit to Mexico and Colombia, home to few U.S. voters.

A brief recap of McCain's week:

_Monday: At an otherwise well-received town hall event in Denver, McCain described the Social Security system as it currently operates as "an absolute disgrace" and said "it's got to be fixed." Liberal groups seized on the comment. McCain later said the disgrace is that young workers will not benefit from the program if long-term financing problems are not addressed. He vowed to work with Democrats and Republicans to do so.

_Tuesday: After ordering a cheesesteak sandwich at a popular Pittsburgh hangout, McCain invited reporters' questions. Asked about surprisingly large shipments of cigarettes to Iran, where U.S. exports are discouraged, McCain quipped: "Maybe that's a way of killing them." The joke seemed less funny a day later, when he somberly criticized Iran's test-firing of missiles. Bloggers, cable news shows and others replayed the sound bite repeatedly.

_Wednesday: McCain campaigned in Pennsylvania, calling for more pressure on Iran, and talked more about Social Security in Ohio, but avoided misteps.

_Thursday: In a Detroit suburb, McCain fielded questions from a partly skeptical audience of autoworkers. Things got worse with news of the "nation of whiners" comment by former Sen. Phil Gramm, a top economic adviser to McCain. McCain, who spent the week highlighting the public's concern about the economy, quickly tried to distance himself from his former colleague and longtime friend. "Phil Gramm does not speak for me. I speak for me," McCain said.

_Friday: The calmest day of McCain's week nonetheless included one of those odd moments that cause some supporters to wonder about his political dexterity. A woman at the Hudson forum denounced the Democratic Party and asked McCain if he would "hammer away at their socialist, Marxist philosophy." His "yes" response drew wild applause.

McCain later hailed the importance of bipartisanship, and even praised Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts liberal. Still, his breezy acceptance of the woman's description seemed at odds with his bid to woo Democrats dubious about Obama and resentful of Hillary Rodham Clinton's defeat.

Perhaps McCain's trickiest problem is that his favorite campaign format _ freewheeling town halls where unscreened attendees can ask him anything _ make it almost impossible for him to focus on one or two key themes.

Worse, they allow anti-McCain activists to challenge or even criticize him before TV cameras, as happened several times last week.

McCain says presidential contenders should routinely subject themselves to the toughest questioning that reporters and voters can offer.

"I'm very happy," he told reporters Friday. He said town hall participants never ask about his campaign shake-ups or the kinds of quips and gaffes that preoccupy cable news. "Their questions are how they can have a better future, educate their kids, keep their jobs, have health care."

"I'm not going to change, because I think I made a lot of progress today," McCain said after the Wisconsin forum.

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On the Net:

McCain: http://www.johmmccain.com