MESILLA, N.M. | When Republicans began booing the mention of Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. at a McCain rally on Saturday, Sen. Lindsey Graham told them to cut it out.
“Oh, no, no, no, no, keep talking, Joe, please,” Mr. Graham, a close confidant of Mr. McCain’s, told the crowd - and for good reason. At this point, Sen. John McCain‘s campaign message is almost entirely a response to gaffes from Mr. Biden and Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama.
Most of the ads the McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee have announced in the past 10 days are based on Mr. Obama’s “spread the wealth” comment to “Joe the Plumber” or Mr. Biden’s guarantee that enemy nations will create a crisis early in an Obama administration.
Mr. McCain’s stump speech is almost entirely a riff on those two comments, which he uses as a chance to counterpose his own tax plans and to promise that he’s already been tested as a national security leader.
Late last week, he added to his speech an attack based on comments by Rep. Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat, suggesting taxes would have to be raised and defense should be cut by 25 percent.
“We should take him at his word,” Mr. McCain says on the campaign trail.
The McCain campaign has been at a disadvantage, having to defend the candidate’s quarter-century-long legislative record while trying to pin down the Democratic nominee, an eloquent speaker who has far fewer votes to examine.
The campaign rhetoric changed when Joe the Plumber became famous. Mr. Obama, whose campaign message had emphasized change from the past, turned his focus to how his plans will affect Americans’ wealth in the future. Mr. Biden’s comments had voters looking ahead on national security.
“Joe the Plumber kind of got us looking forward rather than backward and ever since then we’ve been doing better,” Mr. Graham told reporters this weekend. “Those two comments allow us to look forward.”
Mr. Graham, who was introducing Mr. McCain at campaign rallies this weekend, called the Democratic vice-presidential nominee “Joe the Biden” and labeled him “the gift that keeps on giving.”
Obama campaign spokesman Hari Sevugan said, “If the McCain campaign wants to keep the focus on Senator Obama’s plan to give 95 percent of American workers with tax relief and defend his plan to give billions in new tax breaks for the largest corporations while offering no relief to 101 million Americans, that’s fine with us.”
Mr. Obama has called Mr. Biden’s remarks another example of his “rhetorical flourishes” but said he expects the next president to be tested no matter who wins. He also said he doesn’t regret his comments to Joe Wurzelbacher, an Ohio plumber who hopes to buy a small business and questions Mr. Obama’s tax plan.
“Not at all,” he said in an interview with ABC last week. “The American people understand that the way we grow this economy is from the bottom up.”
He himself also deploys his opponent’s words for attacks. On the campaign trail Saturday, Mr. Obama mocked Mr. McCain’s comment to The Washington Times in an interview last week that Republicans let things get “out of hand” during the Bush administration.
“That’s right, John McCain has been really angry about George Bush’s economic policies - except during the primaries, when he said we’ve made ‘great progress economically’ under George Bush,” Mr. Obama said.
Mr. McCain delivered a line Sunday that could hurt his campaign in Nevada. He mocked Mr. Obama’s objection to expanding nuclear power because of uncertainties about how to store spent nuclear fuel.
“He talked about nuclear power, ‘well, it has to be safe, blah, blah, blah,’ ” Mr. McCain told a responsive crowd in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
The Bush administration and congressional Republicans have proposed placing a nuclear waste storage facility in Nevada.
Mr. McCain seemed to try to correct himself later in the day, saying the country should have the “courage” to find a place to safely store nuclear waste.
For now, though, the McCain campaign hopes Mr. Biden will continue to deliver ammunition.
When the crowd in Zanesville, Ohio, booed Mr. Biden, Mr. Graham once again told them they were wrong about Mr. Biden and his role in the McCain victory strategy: “We need you now more than ever.”