(CHESAPEAKE, VA.) - Barack Obama was handed a gift-wrapped package from John McCain on Thursday.
Just as the Illinois senator has begun focusing on economic concerns with greater intensity, McCain made a comment that opened wide a gulf between him and the electorate he is wooing.
McCain was asked a simple question during an interview with Politico.com. Nothing tricky about it. No curevball this: How many houses do you and Mrs. McCain have?
"I think," said McCain, "uh, I'll have my staff get to you. I'll try to tell you about that."
Huh? Most Americans would certainly be able to answer that question, especially the ones facing foreclosure or mortgages that are ratcheting up.
McCain's staff did get back as promised, saying the number was "at least four." Again, few Americans are in the four-house category.
Even more embarrassing was the finding of an independent watchdog project, Politifact.com, that McCain and his wife, Cindy, own at least seven. Seven homes. Worth in the neighborhood of $13 million. Scattered across the country.
Now this was too good for Obama to pass up.
"If you don't know how many houses you have then it's not surprising you might think the economy is fundamentally strong," he said.
Within hours his campaign had surrogates fanning out bringing news of McCain's residential bounty to voters in every corner of the nation. A new ad was produced in record time to strike while the iron is hot.
Over a shot of the White House, the ad concluded thusly, "Here's one house Americans can't afford to have John McCain move into."
Slowly, inexorably, cellphones of political reporters began to ring. McCain campaign spokesmen were calling and sounding aggrieved that Obama would be pointing out McCain's miscue. One even said we should expect to here attack ads dealing with Obama's past associations, including his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright and a former urban terrorist-turned-university professor William Ayers. "The gloves," said this operative, "are off."
Thursday evening, in an attempt to drum up an alternative story for reporters, a new McCain ad was churned out alleging that Obama's own million-dollar home in Chicago was purchased with the aide of a shady influence peddler.
But the question must be asked, what did Obama's campaign do that would require a doffing off of the gloves? Did he not simply recycle McCain's own words. And, of course, that is the dilemma for McCain's camp. Just as their man was feeling the wind at his back and basking in some good polls comes word of his seven homes.
At least seven. The McCain campaign cried foul, pointing out that Obama earned $4 million last year, which doesn't exactly make him a man of the people. But by McCain's own definition, it doesn't make Obama rich either.
Remember this from last weekend's conference with Rev. Rick Warren at the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif.?
"Define rich," Warren said to McCain.
"How about $5 million?" McCain responded. The audience laughed. But nobody at the McCain campaign is laughing now.