Starting Gate: Black Monday

Yesterday started out well for John McCain, with the presumptive GOP nominee garnering exactly the sort of headlines he wanted for his energy proposals. But late in the day came a distraction, one that pushed those energy stories to the back burner: It emerged that Charlie Black, McCain's chief strategist, suggested in an interview with Fortune Magazine that "it would be a big advantage to" McCain if there were another terror attack on U.S. soil. Black also said the assassination of former Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto last December "helped us."

Black apologized for the comments, and McCain repudiated them, saying he "cannot imagine why [Black] would say it" and adding that "It's not true." But the damage was done. In some ways, the situation isn't entirely surprising: The McCain campaign, with its freewheeling back-of-the-bus chats with journalists, has long eschewed the sort of message discipline that was so central to the campaign of the previous GOP nominee, President George W. Bush.

In some ways that's been an advantage for McCain, who has generated positive media coverage throughout his career and jokingly referred to the press corps as his "base." But the relatively loose attitude also means it's more likely that the campaign will lose track of the media narrative thanks to an offhand comment. Like his boss, Black has shown himself to be remarkably accessible and relatively straightforward when speaking to reporters throughout the campaign. One can't help but wonder if that's about to change.

As for the comments themselves, its worth putting aside the outrage – Obama spokesman Bill Burton referred to Black's words as a "complete disgrace" – and assessing them on their merits. McCain's campaign is built in large part around his national security experience, and it seems plausible that in the wake of a terrorist attack voters will turn to him over rival Barack Obama, whom Republicans have cast as untested. (In the Fortune interview, McCain explained his comments about Benazir Bhutto by noting that McCain's "knowledge and ability to talk about it reemphasized that this is the guy who's ready to be Commander-in-Chief.")

The flip side is that voters might place some of the blame for the attack on McCain, whom the Obama campaign has suggested represents the "failed policies" of the Bush administration. No matter where you come down on the question, a case can certainly be made that, purely from a logical perspective, Black's argument was defensible – if not exactly prudent.

Around The Track:

  • Obama's much-ridiculed presidential seal, unveiled last week, appears to have been retired after one appearance. "That was a one time thing for a one time event," Obama communications director Robert Gibbs told CNN. The apparently-never-to-be-seen-again seal features a bald eagle and looks remarkably similar to the actual presidential seal. "The worry for Obama's image managers is that it gives the press a pretext to call Obama arrogant, an example for them to add to a list of arrogant moments, and a way to distract them from what Obama is saying," writes CBS News chief political consultant Marc Ambinder.

  • Does McCain's decision to support offshore drilling signal that he is effectively giving up on California? Republican strategist Dan Schnur, who worked for the candidate in 2000, thinks so. "McCain is essentially conceding what would have been an uphill fight in California in order to strengthen his opportunities in states like Michigan and Ohio," he told the Los Angeles Times, adding: "Whether this plays in Santa Barbara is much less important than how it plays in Columbus, Ohio." McCain will deliver an environmental briefing at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History at noon today, joined by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

  • Obama will hold an energy discussion in Las Vegas this afternoon at the Springs Preserve, a 180 acre complex with energy efficient buildings and solar panels. Tonight he will host a fundraiser in Hollywood. Samuel L. Jackson, Dennis Quaid, Cindy Crawford and Sugar Ray Leonard are among those expected to attend the event, which the Associated Press writes will "confirm again that the entertainment industry remains one of the most reliable and abundant sources of Democratic campaign cash."

  • Hillary Clinton, who will campaign with Obama on Friday in the town of Unity, New Hampshire, returns to the Senate today.

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