17 March 2007


In an effort to kick-start his sputtering presidential campaign, John McCain revved up the old Straight Talk Express this week - resurrecting the name of the campaign bus which became synonomous with his free-wheeling style in the 2000 GOP primary campaign.

This time around though, the road has been a little bumpy for McCain and something seems to be missing.

A couple of recent campaign anecdotes illustrate this point.

On Friday, McCain used the term "tar baby" when trying to express the thought that the federal government should not get involved in matters of child custody because it risks creating problems rather than solving them.

Without getting into the whole literary derivation of the term, McCain probably could have used the term "can of worms" instead, and avoided the other - racially tinged - meaning of the "tar baby" phrase.

Then there was this little tongue-slip by the senator at another stop in Iowa this week.

``The reason Republicans lost the war -- sorry, the last election -- was because of spending,'' he said.

While both missteps were small matters, they seem to be indicative of a candidate who - after being seen as the GOP's 2008 frontrunner for years now - is on edge, playing it safe and just hoping to get through the campaign without any major gaffes.

An incident on the campaign bus yesterday is probably a still-better example of a candidate - unlike the 2000 McCain - who is too beholden to handlers and strategists. Too afraid to say the wrong thing as he tries to be all things to all Republicans, particularly those of the religious-fanatic variety.

As reported on the New York Times political blog The Caucus, McCain was literally tongue-tied when asked a question about the distribtion of U.S. taxpayer-purchased condoms to help stop the spread of AIDS in Africa.

What followed was a long series of awkward pauses, glances up to the ceiling and the image of one of Mr. McCain's aides, standing off to the back, urgently motioning his press secretary to come to Mr. McCain's side.

The upshot was that Mr. McCain said he did not know this subject well, did not know his position on it, and relied on the advice of Senator Tom Coburn, a physician and Republican from Oklahoma.--The Caucus (emphasis mine)

While McCain fired up the Straight Talk Express to try to recreate the spark his candidacy had last time around, it looks like just another gimmick by the "establishment candidate" this time. Just another image-guy's idea to bring some life back to a stagnant campaign.

The problem facing McCain is not new. John Kerry was "handled" to death. The 2000 model of Al Gore suffered the same fate. And, to a great degree, Hillary Clinton is facing the same problem - as she continues to suffer from the perception that she is too stiff and too contrived.

McCain seems to be trying to play prevent defense in an effort to hold on to a lead he has already surrendered to Rudy Giuliani.

The resurrection of the Straight Talk Express indicates McCain realizes he's no longer winning the race. Now if he could just shed his self-imposed shackles and hit us with some actual straight talk, he might be able to turn his bus around.

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