“Whenever there’s a corrupt system, then you’re going to have these birds of prey descend on it to get their share of the spoils,” McCain said in a half-hour interview with Politico following a town-hall meeting in the southern part of this swing state.
McCain, clearly weary of vice-presidential speculation, began by saying preemptively that he was not going to say anything about the hot topic. His mood initially seemed sour, and his answers were clipped, although he warmed as the conversation went on.
“Let me just begin by saying that to save you some time, I’m not going to comment on the vice president,” he said. “You can ask away, but … I’m sure you understand.”
The topic of lobbyists is sensitive for McCain because several of his top aides had lucrative lobbying practices.
His tough new language is designed to build his case that he would be an agent of change in a race against an opponent who has built his entire campaign on the premise that he will reform the political status quo in Washington.
“I point out what my record is, which is one that has not won me Miss Congeniality over the years,” he said. “People want change in America — we all know that — and very legitimately so.”
The senator went so far as to say: “Lobbyists don’t come to my office. Because they know they’re not going to be an earmark. They know they’re not going to get a pork-barrel project. Senator Obama’s gotten lots of ’em.:”
McCain’s plan for the strict admonition on future lobbying by White House aides is part of a policy he imposed on his campaign staff this spring after questions were raised about their past clients.
“I would not allow anyone who worked for my administration to go back to lobbying,” McCain said. “They would have to make that pledge.”
On other matters, McCain was eager to talk about the response of his opponent, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), to Russia’s seizure of strategic points in Georgia, which top Republicans said will be a key issue this fall.
“I have, and continue to question his judgment, whether it be his initial reaction to the Russian invasion of Georgia, or whether it be his failure to acknowledge that the surge has succeeded, or his opposition to nuclear power, among others,” McCain said. “So I question the judgment. I don’t question the patriotism.”
Asked if he could deal with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, whom he has consistently excoriated on the stump, McCain flashed a smile and said: “I’ve faced bad guys in my time.”
“I’d be glad to meet with him,” McCain added. “It would be important to have some kind of framework for the meeting. In other words, there would have to be some kind of predetermined, at least outcome about some aspects of the meeting … for example, some progress in some area that was agreed upon earlier – the Nixon in China, Reagan-Gorbachev, et cetera. It would have to be something besides just a, quote, meeting.”
McCain took the opportunity for a mulligan on his careless answer to Pastor Rick Warren at the Saddleback Church forum Saturday, where he said that he would define “rich” as $5 million – a comment that he immediately, and correctly – predicted would be distorted.
He still did not give a number.
“I define rich in other ways besides income,” he said. “Some people are wealthy and rich in their lives and their children and their ability to educate them. Others are poor if they’re billionaires.”
Although McCain’s campaign has become increasingly sharp in its atack on Obama, spending was one of the few times the senator even mentioned his opponent.
“Senator Obama has asked for nearly a billion dollars in earmarked pork-barrel projects. And he rails against lobbyists? I’ve never taken a single one,” McCain said.
In response to a question about the influence industry, McCain noted: “I think there are too many lobbyists in Washington.”
“But the fact is that they are the symptom of a disease,” he continued. “As long as you have earmarking and pork-barrel spending and bridges to nowhere and money for DNA of bears in Montana and museums and all that, then you’re going to have lobbyists.
“So it’s kind of entertaining to me to attack the lobbyists rather than the source of the problem, which is the earmark. They’d all be out of business – most of ’em would be out of business if we stopped pork-barrel and earmark spending.”
On other topics, McCain:
--Punted on several opportunities to whack Obama, including when he was asked whether Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) is better prepared to be president (“I don’t know”), and whether the country would be more vulnerable to a terrorist attack under a President Obama than under a President McCain.
“I’m sure that if Senator Obama were president of the United States, if the American people chose him to be their president, that he would act as a president who would get my full and complete support,” McCain said.
--Said he wasn’t comfortable having his campaign aided by a best-selling attack book, “The Obama Nation,” that revives questions about Obama’s connections to Islam and makes other unsubstantiated personal accusations about the Democrat.
“Of course not,” McCain said “As you know, I have condemned the [commercials invoking Obama pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright] that were done by various people.”
McCain would not, however, denounce the book, written by Jerome Corsi, the same author who penned the book attacking Sen. John F. Kerry’s Vietnam service. “I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know – I can’t comment,” McCain said.
Politico’s Lisa Lerer contributed to this report.