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Truth suffers, but not McCain's campaign

John McCain’s decades-old reputation for honesty may be tested as the campaign winds down.

John McCain’s decades-old reputation for honesty may be tested as the campaign winds down.

WASHINGTON — In recent days, Sen. John McCain and his campaign have distorted Sen. Barack Obama's view on sex ed for kindergartners, issued bogus statements about the federal pork for Alaska sought by his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, and aired an ad in Spanish blaming Obama for killing an immigration reform bill last year, even though Obama and McCain were on the same side.

For a Republican presidential candidate whose campaign bus is the Straight Talk Express and who built his political persona on integrity, a candidate who ends town hall meetings by somberly promising, "I will always tell you the truth," the flurry of falsehoods has been jarring even to some Republicans.

His Democratic foes also hope it will prove damaging, but so far McCain has little reason to fear he may ruin his sterling reputation — thanks largely to his sterling reputation.

Recent polls show McCain still leads Obama in the trust department. Political analysts and pollsters say they doubt he'll pay in November unless his campaign continues its course and Obama can undo years of political branding and portray McCain as untrustworthy.

A difficult task, regardless of the dustups of today.

"Any candidate needs to fear the weight of public opinion and a consensus forming against them, but the McCain campaign is a long way from that point, in part because of his reputation for independence and straight talk," said Whit Ayres, a respected Republican pollster who is not affiliated with the campaign. "They've got more room to work."

Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster and president of the Polling Co., said she believes it's tough for the Democrats to call McCain a liar and not look out of line, or even face a backlash. After all, McCain, 72, is a Vietnam War hero who has built a strong reputation after three decades in Congress.

"With 50 days to go, it's going to be very difficult to undo the man's reputation for honestly, integrity, veracity and plain-spokenness that he's built up, jeez, dating back to Vietnam," said Conway, whose clients include the St. Petersburg Times.

• • •

Obama and his campaign, of course, have told some whoppers as well, unfairly characterizing McCain's support for corporate tax cuts as special breaks for the oil industry, taking out of context McCain's comments about how long America may need troops in Iraq and besmirching McCain's record on gas mileage standards. This week, Obama exaggerated his role in crafting the economic stimulus package that passed Congress this year.

But in volume and vigor, Team McCain of late is playing at a much higher level, repeating falsehoods almost daily about Palin's record, particularly, as well as Obama's.

"The McCain campaign has lost its moral authority to complain about unfair advertising," former McCain adviser Mike Murphy said Tuesday on MSNBC's Morning Joe.

Not surprisingly, Obama's campaign, along with Democrats generally, is sputtering. It is difficult to keep up with the avalanche of press releases featuring news clips debunking various claims from the McCain campaign, from McCain's assertion that as governor of Alaska Palin did not seek federal earmarks (false) to Palin's continued insistence that as governor she oversees 20 percent of the nation's domestic oil and gas production (also false).

Ron Bonjean, a veteran Republican consultant in Washington, said that one reason McCain appears undamaged is that he's not stopping to engage Obama on every disputed attack. Instead, he and other analysts said, the Republicans are trying to quickly exploit what they see as vulnerabilities in Obama's message and image.

"There will be questions on his statements from time to time, but instead of allowing the media to bog down the McCain campaign with a parsing of the statements, they just move forward," Bonjean said. "And it's smart for them to do, because the velocity of the campaign is too strong to stop and try to make course corrections. You just have to keep moving on to the next media cycle."

• • •

When it comes to what voters like most about McCain, Republican, Democratic and nonpartisan pollsters alike cite words like "integrity," "honesty" and "straight talk."

A Suffolk University poll out this week found that McCain leads Obama by 4 percentage points in the battleground state of Ohio, thanks largely to what pollster David Paleologos calls the trust gap: Although Ohioans said Obama is better equipped to deal with the economy and other important domestic issues, 49 percent trust McCain more, compared with 41 percent who trust Obama more.

"An eight-point differential in a key state like Ohio tells me a lot about what the baseline strength of McCain's persona is, and where Obama needs to go," said Paleologos, director of the Political Research Center at Suffolk University in Boston.

Because trust is such a fundamental part of McCain's appeal, pollsters and analysts said his candidacy would be at risk if voters perceive he's not delivering straight talk. While that doesn't appear to have happened, that doesn't mean it can't.

Even Karl Rove, who as President Bush's campaign manager in 2004 helped dismantle Democratic Sen. John Kerry's reputation as a war hero and statesman, suggested that McCain may want to dial it back a bit. "McCain has gone in some of his ads … one step too far, and sort of attributing to Obama things that are, you know, beyond the 100 percent truth test," Rove said on Fox News Sunday.

He didn't give Obama a pass, either, saying, "Both campaigns are making a mistake, and that is they are taking whatever their attacks are and going one step too far."

• • •

The McCain charge generating the most guffaws came over Obama's use of the phrase "you can put lipstick on a pig — it's still a pig." It's a common political line, and Obama was clearly referring to McCain's argument that he represents change. But in the wake of Palin's oft-repeated joke about how the only difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull is "lipstick," the McCain campaign released an ad claiming that Obama had slyly called Palin a pig.

Yet in Jacksonville on Monday, when reporters asked McCain if he really thought Obama had called Palin a pig, he said No.

And then McCain defended his advertisement anyway. "But I know he chooses his words carefully and it was the wrong thing to say. ... I didn't like it, so we responded."

Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Wes Allison can be reached at allison@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0577.

Truth suffers, but not McCain's campaign 09/18/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 22, 2008 10:31am]
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