Saturday, July 12, 2008

Surrogate alert! Barack Obama’s wife quipped that a $600 tax stimulus check could be used for a pair of earrings.

The same day, a John McCain surrogate dismissed economic woes from a nation of “whiners.”

Those gaffes — and even references to castration and Viagra — illustrated a week of tabloidlike “Oh, no, he didn’t!” coverage that are the latest examples of how the men who want to be president are taking hits for others’ words and people they can’t control.

“Surrogates gone wild” is no laughing matter for Mr. Obama or Mr. McCain, who each have been sidetracked from their preferred agendas and asked to respond to — or apologize for —kerfuffles from mouths other than their own.

Michelle Obama said in Pontiac, Mich., on Wednesday that if her husband is elected he will offer more than a “quick fix” on the economy.

“You’re getting $600 — what can you do with that? Not to be ungrateful or anything, but maybe it pays down a bill, but it doesn’t pay down every bill every month,” she said. “The short-term quick fix kinda stuff sounds good, and it may even feel good that first month when you get that check, and then you go out and you buy a pair of earrings.”

McCain surrogate Sen. Lindsey Graham blasted Mrs. Obama’s remarks in an interview with The Washington Times, saying, “I know $600 for a family in South Carolina can get kids ready for school, help with the gas bill and does make a difference for families trying to make ends meet.”

While surrogates like Mr. Graham can serve as willing and able attack dogs, they run the big risk of distracting from the candidate’s preferred theme of the day.

If a surrogate delivers the candidate’s message with even a nuance of difference, the opposing camp will pick it apart and e-mail the quote to the press.

For example: In May, the McCain campaign gleefully noted: “Over the past week, at least seven Obama advisers have contradicted Obama on unconditional meetings with rogue leaders.”

And if the surrogate goes completely off message, look out.

McCain economic adviser Phil Gramm on the same day Mrs. Obama joked about earrings told The Times that the sagging economy is a “mental recession” driven by the media for a “nation of whiners.”

Also this week, top advocates speaking for each White House hopeful have gone off the rails — from the Rev. Jesse Jackson saying he wanted to effectively castrate Mr. Obama to McCain adviser Carly Fiorina breaching a topic that embarrassed the man she works for — Viagra and birth control.

She told reporters it was unfair that insurance covers the man’s drug but not birth control, and when Mr. McCain was asked a follow up on his top female surrogate’s remarks, he demurred.

“I certainly do not want to discuss that issue,” he said before retreating into what a pool reporter described as “uneasy laughter.”

Mr. McCain said he wasn’t familiar with his record of voting against forcing health insurances companies to cover birth control, and said it was something “I had not thought much about.”

Ms. Fiorina also wrongly said this summer that Mr. McCain “has never signed on to efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade.”

The Gramm comments to The Times Wednesday were still dogging Mr. McCain on Friday. A reporter asked him about the comments on the trail, and the Republican said they are in “total disagreement on whether Americans are whiners or not.”

“And, again, I hope that Senator Gramm enjoys his stay in Minsk,” Mr. McCain said, repeating a joke that he’d like to send the surrogate to be ambassador to Belarus and adding the he hopes Mr. Gramm is “brushing up” on his linguistic skills.

“He won’t be on the campaign?” the reporter prodded, prompting Mr. McCain to say, “I don’t have anything more to add.”

It was a bad week for both candidates, but they have long suffered from surrogate strain.

Before introducing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton during a February rally in Ohio, Tom Buffenbarger of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers railed on Mr. Obama. The nicest thing he said about her Democratic rival was that he was a “thespian.” The nastiest things was a tossup — he said Mr. Obama was “in love with the microphone” and his fans are “latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing, trust-fund babies.”

A few months later, Obama adviser Samantha Power called Mrs. Clinton a “monster,” and stepped down from the campaign.

Those two examples from the Democratic primary were just the tip of the iceberg as surrogates were asked to step aside over raising the issue of drug use, race and gender. And the surrogate in chief, former President Bill Clinton, was in a class of his own for straying off message with finger-wagging while campaigning for his wife.

Sometimes the candidates might have been better off saying thanks, but no thanks.

When pressed on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” Texas State Sen. Kirk Watson failed to name a single accomplishment Mr. Obama had under his belt, to the delight of Obama foes.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark was an Obama surrogate for less than a month after Mrs. Clinton ended her bid when he put his foot in his mouth over Mr. McCain’s military record.

“So Barack Obama, who promises a new kind of politics, has still not repudiated Gen. Clark for his comments and has effectively given a green light to attack John McCain’s military service,” a Team McCain e-mail blared.

McCain adviser Charlie Black said his boss would benefit from a terrorist attack and groups supporting Mr. Obama have called for Mr. McCain to fire the adviser for his comments on terrorism and his lobbying for foreign governments.

It illustrates the bigger problem as each man locked up his party’s nomination - virtually every Democrat can be considered an Obama “surrogate” by local media and might be given a microphone for a rally introduction, and the same goes for Republicans across the country.

The national parties seem to have opposition research files for just about everyone - and as soon as a politician or fundraiser surfaces with a tie to the candidate, the old quotes come out.

When Dick Greco, former mayor of Tampa, Fla., spoke for Mr. McCain on a conference call, the Democratic National Committee pounced.

“One of John McCain’s campaign surrogates cited Fidel Castro’s beachfront oil rigs to DEFEND John McCain’s decision to pander to Big Oil on coastal drilling,” the DNC told reporters in an e-mail. “[Mr.] Greco bragged about visiting with Fidel Castro and driving from Havana to Varanero Beach, where he saw oil rigs drilling ‘not out in the water, not 50, 60, 70 or 80 miles like we’re talking about here, but on the beach itself.’”

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