By CHARLES BABINGTON, Associated Press Writer Fri Sep 12, 12:43 PM ET
WASHINGTON - The "Straight Talk Express" has detoured into doublespeak.
Even in a political culture accustomed to truth-stretching, McCain's skirting of facts has stood out this week. It has infuriated and flustered Obama's campaign, and campaign pros are watching to see how much voters disregard news reports noting factual holes in the claims.
McCain's persistence in pushing dubious claims is all the more notable because many political insiders consider him one of the greatest living victims of underhanded campaigning. Locked in a tight race with George W. Bush for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, McCain was rocked in South Carolina by a whisper campaign claiming he had fathered an illegitimate black child and was mentally unstable.
Shaken by the experience, McCain denounced less-than-truthful campaigning. Vowing to live up to his "straight talk" motto, he apologized for his reluctance to criticize the flying of the Confederate flag at South Carolina's state Capitol in a bid for votes. When the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacked the military record of Democrat and fellow Navy officer John Kerry in 2004, McCain called the ads "dishonest and dishonorable."
Now, top aides to McCain include Steve Schmidt, who has close ties to Karl Rove, Bush's premier political adviser in 2000.
Politicians usually modify or drop claims when a string of newspaper and TV news accounts concludes they are untrue or greatly exaggerated. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, for example, conceded she had not come under sniper fire in Bosnia after a batch of debunking articles subjected her to scorn during her primary contest against Obama.
But McCain and his running mate Palin, the Alaska governor, were defiant this week in the face of similar reports. Day after day she said she had told Congress "no thanks" to the so-called Bridge to Nowhere, a rural Alaska project that was abandoned when critics challenged its costs and usefulness. For nearly a week, major news outlets had documented that Palin supported the bridge when running for governor in 2006, noting that she turned against it only after it became an object of ridicule in Alaska and a symbol of Congress's out-of-control earmarking.
The McCain-Palin campaign made at least three other aggressive claims this week that omitted key details or made dubious assumptions to criticize Obama. It equated lawmakers' requests for money for special projects with corruption, even though Palin has sought millions of dollars in such "earmarks" this year.
It produced an Internet ad implying that Obama had called Palin a pig when he used a familiar phrase, which McCain also has used, about putting "lipstick on a pig" to try to make a bad situation look better. McCain supporters said Obama was slyly alluding to Palin's description of herself as a pit bull in lipstick, but there was nothing in his remarks to support the claim. Obama accused the GOP campaign of "lies and phony outrage."
The lipstick wars were fully engaged when the McCain campaign produced another ad saying Obama favored "comprehensive sex education" for kindergartners. The charge triggered the sort of headlines becoming increasingly common in major newspapers and wire services monitoring the factual content of political ads and speeches.
"Ad on Sex Education Distorts Obama Policy," was the headline on a New York Times article Thursday. "McCain's 'Education' Spot is Dishonest, Deceptive," The Washington Post's "Fact Checker" article said.
Major news outlets have written such fact-checking articles for years. "But in the last two election cycles, the very notion that the facts matter seems to be under assault," said Michael X. Delli Carpini, an authority on political ads at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication. "Candidates and their consultants seem to have learned that as long as you don't back down from your charges or claims, they will stick in the minds of voters regardless of their accuracy or at a minimum, what the truth is will remain murky, a matter of opinion rather than fact."
With Palin giving McCain's campaign a boost in the polls, Obama supporters are nervously watching to see what impact the latest claims will have. Surveys already show that most people believe Obama would raise their taxes — a regular McCain claim — even though independent groups such as the Tax Policy Center concluded that four out of five U.S. households would receive tax cuts under his proposals.
McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds defended the campaign's statements. "We include factual backup in every one of our TV spots," he said Thursday.
Obama, of course, has made exaggerated or questionable assertions as well. Earlier this year, for instance, he repeated a claim that more black men are in prison than in college, after news accounts refuted it. He also used a McCain remark about having troops in Iraq for "100 years" to exaggerate McCain's proposals for being fully engaged militarily in that country.
In general, however, Obama has been quicker to react to news accounts challenging his accuracy. Faced with skeptical reports this year, for instance, he stopped saying he "worked his way" through college, and instead credited hard work and scholarships.
Dan Schnur, a former McCain aide who now teaches politics at the University of Southern California, said McCain and Obama learned they must stretch the truth "when staying on the high road didn't work out to their benefit."
McCain, he said, "tried it his way. He had a poverty tour and nobody covered it. He had a national service tour, and everybody made fun of it. He proposed these joint town halls" with Obama, "and nothing come of it. Through the spring and early summer, that approach didn't work. You can't blame him for taking a step back and reassessing."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Charles Babington covers national politics for The Associated Press.