When it comes to one-liners in this campaign, John McCain has taken the cake. The problem for him is that he’s eaten it too.
While the Republican has arguably delivered the best lines of the last few months, he's inarguably stumbled upon the worst. Though rival Barack Obama has been more disciplined and deliberate in his public rhetoric, the Democrat has mustered his share of tongue trips and rips, as well.
So as the campaign winds down, Politico goes back through its notebooks in search of the best lines and worst gaffes of the general election.
The line: “John McCain likes to say that he'll follow bin Laden to the Gates of Hell — but he won't even go to the cave where he lives.”
The occasion: Aug. 28 Democratic National Convention speech
The significance: After weeks of enduring McCain campaign ridicule for his position on hunting down terrorists in Pakistan’s tribal area, Obama countered with the sharpest barb of his nomination speech, staking a claim on McCain’s war-on-terror turf.
The line: “The old boys' network? In the McCain campaign, that’s called a staff meeting.”
The occasion: Sep. 17 campaign rally in Elko, Nev.
The significance: Team Obama didn’t have to work particularly hard to think up a rejoinder when McCain, a 72-year-old, three-term senator, tried to draw a nexus between “the old-boy network and the corruption in Washington.” This was kind of a gimmie. Still, Obama struck just the right note with this crowd-pleasing yet cool-headed stump salvo.
The line: “The record’s clear: John McCain has voted with President Bush 90 percent of the time. I don’t know about you, but I’m not willing to take a 10 percent chance on change.”
The occasion: Democratic National Convention speech
The significance: The “90 percent” line has bestrided the campaign conversation ever since, and this topper mixed in both the c-word and a little snark.
The line: “I think it's a pretty clear that Sen. McCain is a little panicked right now. At this point, he seems to be willing to say anything or do anything or change any position or violate any principle to try and win this election, and I've got to say it's kind of sad to see. That's not the politics we need.”
The occasion: Sep. 19 campaign rally in Coral Gables, Fla.
The significance: Obama framed the race: Subsequent polls and news stories suggested voters and the media concurred with his assessment.
The line: “I sure wish he felt the same outrage about CEO pay when his top economic adviser — who he calls a ‘role model’ — walked away with a $42 million package after being fired from Hewlett-Packard.”
The occasion: Sep. 24 rally in Dunedin, Fla.
The significance: Obama squeezed the last bit of juice out of McCain’s off-message economic adviser, Carly Fiorina, who nine days prior had told a St. Louis radio station that Sarah Palin wouldn't be up to the job of running the company.
The line: "Sen. Obama, I'm not President Bush. ... If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago."
The occasion: Oct. 15 presidential debate at Hofstra University
The significance: Hands down, the most memorable line from the final presidential debate. Republican operatives could barely contain their excitement afterward — or their wish that this had been said in the first debate and not the final one.
The line: "We had a good debate this week, and I thought I did pretty well, but let's have some straight talk: The real winner this week was Joe the Plumber. Joe won, because he's the only person to get a real answer out of Sen. Obama about his plans for our country.”
The occasion: Oct. 18 campaign rally in Concord, N.C.
The significance: With this, McCain began to make up some ground in the tracking polls, and Joe Wurzelbacher became a potential 2010 congressional candidate.
The line: “I’m not running for president because I think I’m blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save our country in its hour of need. My country saved me. My country saved me, and I cannot forget it. And I will fight for her for as long as I draw breath, so help me God.”
The occasion: Sep. 4 Republican National Convention speech
The significance: Struggling at times through the first half of his remarks, McCain caught stride in the autobiographical summation. This was one of the defter (and subtler) ways he invoked his prisoner of war story and enhanced his campaign’s “Country First” sloganeering.
The line: “I don’t need lessons about telling the truth to American people. And were I ever to need any improvement in that regard, I probably wouldn’t seek advice from a Chicago politician.”
The occasion: Oct. 6 Campaign rally in Albuquerque, N.M.
The significance: Beating up on the Windy City political machine is always good for scoring a political point or two. In the coming weeks, McCain would get much more specific about what (and who) he found so unsavory about Chicago.
The gaffe: Obama introduces Sen. Joe Biden as “the next president of the United States.”
The occasion: Aug. 23 rally in Springfield, Ill.
The significance: With inexperience the salient knock against Obama, some deemed this slip Freudian, and the McCain campaign made quick work of it. “Barack Obama sounded as though he turned over the top spot on the ticket today to his new mentor,” mocked McCain spokesman Ben Porritt.
The gaffe: Obama refers to “my Muslim faith.”
The occasion: Sept. 7 interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos
The significance: For the voters dead set on believing that Obama is a secret practitioner of Islam, this miscue probably was enough to confirm suspicions. Elsewhere, nobody thought much of it.
The gaffe: Obama says “lipstick on a pig.”
The occasion: Sep. 9 rally in Lebanon, Va.
The significance: The phrase stole a couple of news cycles, with McCain campaign decrying it as a sexist jab at Gov. Sarah Palin. Obama pushed back, explaining that it was a common expression he'd used in reference to the McCain campaign’s stab at the "change" mantle.
The gaffe: Obama says he wants to “spread the wealth around.”
The occasion: Oct. 13 conversation with Wurzelbacher at a campaign stop in Ohio
The significance: If Obama had simply omitted these four words in explaining his economic philosophy, we might never have heard of Joe the Plumber, and McCain would have had a far more difficult time lambasting Obama as a “socialist.”
The gaffe: Obama says he’s “showing some love” for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
The occasion: Oct. 20 campaign rally in Tampa, Fla.
The significance: Nine days earlier, Obama had told supporters in Philadelphia that he was backing the Phillies. McCain, noting that he was not “dumb enough to get mixed up in a World Series between swing states,” lampooned Obama for this clear act of sports pandering.
The gaffe: McCain sets the bar for “rich” at $5 million.
The occasion: Aug. 16 Saddleback Church Presidential Forum
The significance: Although he said it jokingly, McCain seemed instantly aware that he had just gift-wrapped a present for Obama’s opposition ad-makers. And indeed he had: The "out of touch" narrative was afoot.
The gaffe: McCain can’t remember how many homes he owns.
The occasion: Aug. 21 interview with Politico reporters Mike Allen and Jonathan Martin in Las Cruces, N.M.
The significance: Just a week after the $5 million goof, McCain further undermined his entire line of attack on Obama’s “elitism.”
The gaffe: McCain says “the fundamentals of our economy are strong.”
The occasion: Sept. 15 campaign rally in Jacksonville, Fla.
The significance: McCain had made this same statement on numerous occasions in the months leading up the Wall Street collapse, so there was a good chance these words would come back to bite him one way or another. But to offer them up once more, mid-bank meltdown, was one time too many.
The gaffe: McCain talks about imaginary Iraq-Pakistan border.
The occasion: July 21 interview on "Good Morning America"
The significance: The junior senator from Illinois was supposed to be the at-risk candidate when he ventured across the pond. But the first gaffe of Obama’s Middle East/European bender came from the senior senator from Arizona, who got mixed up on his Middle East geography. Suddenly, McCain’s strongest suit, his foreign policy bona fides, didn’t seem so bona.
The gaffe: McCain calls crowd “my fellow prisoners”
The occasion: Oct. 8 speech in Strongsville, Ohio
The significance: As the age question was now being addressed in the press without equivocation, this slip-up only hiked the public brow higher. Then again, for the sake of elegant variation, it was a nice change of pace from his time-worn “my friends” honorific.
The gaffe: McCain “couldn’t agree more” with Rep. John P. Murtha’s “racists” comment.
The occasion: Oct. 21 rally in Moon, Pa.
The significance: Combined with several other verbal miscues around the same time, this gaffe lent the impression that exhaustion had overtaken McCain in the waning weeks of the election.