CHESTER, Va.—Both campaigns hit close to home today, as they battled over which candidate appeared more out-of-touch with voters based on the properties that each owns.
Democrat Barack Obama seized on comments from Republican John McCain in a Politico interview Wednesday where he could not identify the number of houses he owned. As Obama mocked his rival at a town hall meeting here for the comments, his campaign sent an ad to national cable stations and deployed high-profile surrogates in 16 key states, casting the comments as evidence that McCain does not understand working families.
McCain’s campaign responded by raising Obama’s ties to Tony Rezko, a former Obama fundraiser who was convicted this year on corruption charges unrelated to the senator. Obama and his wife bought their $1.65 million home in 2005 after getting advice from Rezko, and later sold part of the adjacent property to Rezko’s wife.
The increasingly negative tone of the campaign came as speculation continued to swirl over Obama’s vice-presidential pick. He stretched out the media focus on his imminent pick by confirming to reporters that he had decided on his choice, but wouldn’t disclose a name, which is expected at some point over the next 36 hours.
“I've made the selection and that's all you're going to get,” Obama said at a peanut and gift shop in Emporia, Va.
Asked if he had formally extended an offer, Obama grinned, put a hand in his pocket and said: “You’re not going to get anything out of me.”
Despite the hint from Obama, Thursday was the first day in a week that vice-presidential selection was overshadowed on the campaign trail.
The heightened scrutiny on the candidates’ personal wealth reflects voter anxiety over the still-struggling economy. The issue has particular resonance as the subprime crisis continues to move through the market, forcing a growing number of homeowners into foreclosure.
The campaigns—aware that some of the highest foreclosure rates are in key swing states like Ohio and Florida—jumped on the issue with a vengeance.
New polling shows concern with the economy is as high as it’s been since 1992, when Bill Clinton’s campaign coined the iconic election slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Forty percent of voters surveyed by the New York Times/CBS News poll ranked the economy as their top concern, while just 15 percent cited the Iraq War.
On Wednesday, McCain expressed uncertainty over the exact number of homes he owned.
“I think — I’ll have my staff get to you,” he said in an interview with Politico. “It’s condominiums where — I’ll have them get to you.”
McCain’s staff initially reported that the Arizona senator owned four homes. The Obama campaign did its own analysis and came up with seven properties McCain owned with his wife, Cindy. And a Politico analysis of property and tax records, as well interviews, found that McCain’s family owns eight properties worth $11 million.
Obama jumped on McCain’s comments at his first stop today.
“Now think about that,” Obama said. “I guess if you think that being rich means you’ve got to make $5 million, and if you don’t know how many houses you have, then it’s not surprising that you might think the economy was fundamentally strong. But if you’re like me, and you got one house, or you were like the millions of people who are struggling right now to keep up with their mortgage so they don’t lose their home, you might have a different perspective.”
“There’s just a fundamental gap of understanding between John McCain’s world and what people are going through every single day here in America,” he continued.
The McCain campaign quickly fired back, accusing Obama of his own real estate indiscreions.
“Does a guy who made more than $4 million last year, just got back from vacation on a private beach in Hawaii and bought his own million-dollar mansion with the help of a convicted felon really want to get into a debate about houses?” said campaign spokesman Brian Rodgers.
The campaign also released a new television ad and created a Web site http://www.gop.com/ObamaRezkoShadyDeal/ reminding voters of Obama’s connections to Rezko, the convicted Chicago real-estate developer and political fundraiser. During the Democratic primary, Obama came under attack for his relationship with Rezko, which opponents say helped him get a special price on his Chicago property.
When Obama purchased his current home in June 2005, he and his wife paid $1.65 million—a hefty sum but $300,000 less than the asking price. In February 2008, his campaign largely defused questions about the sale when the couple from whom the Obamas bought their house said the senator had submitted three bids, starting with an offer of $1.3 million, before his final offer was accepted.
In January 2006, Obama bought one-sixth of an adjoining lot from Rezko’s wife, Rita, paying her exactly a sixth of the sum she had paid for the full lot.
Obama later said it was “boneheaded” of him to accept help from the Rezkos in his real-estate dealings.
Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh pushed the issue on his Thursday show.
“The question isn’t how many [homes] McCain has but how many homes does McCain have where he got a sweetheart deal involving Tony Rezko,” said Limbaugh on his Thursday show. “If Obama wants to talk homes, let’s talk homes.”
As his campaign fired shots, the presumptive Republican nominee hunkered down in his Arizona cabin to work with top aides on campaign strategy and his nomination acceptance speech.
In the morning, McCain, who likes to get his own coffee when he’s at the cabin, assembled his nine-car motorcade for the 15-minute drive to the local Starbucks. Aides Charlie Black and Brooke Buchanan joined him for the caffeine fix.
A few hours later the group left to film convention footage and campaign ads.
Obama, meanwhile, toured Virginia from Richmond to the southeast town of Chesapeake, holding two town hall meetings—joined at one stop by a potential vice presidential contender, Gov. Tim Kaine—and talking with voters at stops at a deli and a peanut shop.
Obama told the co-owner of the peanut shop, Dorothy Bass, that he heard he might be able to win over her vote and that he wasn’t leaving until he did.
After they talked policy, he asked if he’d succeeded.
“What do you want me to say?” Bass asked, before adding “I feel better about it already” but saying that her vote was private.
With that, he let her off the hook.
Mike Allen contributed to this report.