WASHINGTON - John McCain's latest campaign angst, this time over his aides' ties to lobbyists, is putting the Republican in conflict with his carefully honed, decades-old reformer image. It's also giving Democratic rival Barack Obama an opening to paint him as nothing more than a creature of Washington.
"The fact is, John McCain's campaign is being run by Washington lobbyists and paid for by their money," Obama argued yesterday in Billings, Mont. - far from the Beltway. "I'm not in this race to continue the special interest-driven politics of the last eight years, I'm in this race to end it."
McCain is trying to stem the woes from his lobbyist links, putting in place new conflict-of- interest guidelines that triggered the departures of several campaign staffers due to their lobbying ties, including some to foreign governments.
"We have enacted the most comprehensive and most transparent policy concerning lobbyist activities, and I challenge Senator Obama to adopt a similar policy," the presumptive GOP presidential nominee said yesterday in Savannah, Ga.
While Democrats have fueled the turmoil, it's partly of McCain's making. He has tried to straddle two worlds, being both a four-term senator known as a fighter of special interests and a candidate whose campaign has employed people with long records of lobbying.
"McCain's political biography is based on the idea that he wants to clean up government so it's easier for his opponents to raise these questions than it would be if he were any other candidate," said Dan Schnur, a former McCain aide who now teaches political science at California universities. "But now he's going to be able to turn around and talk about how he's cleaned up his campaign."
Others see continued fallout, and, perhaps, lasting damage.
"It's the biggest anti-Washington streak in the American electorate in decades, and McCain's problem is that his campaign is full of Washington-lobbyist types," said Chris Kofinis, a Democratic consultant and former John Edwards aide. "You can't be the guy who is striving for reform when the people who run the campaign are fighting against reform. It's hypocritical."
For months, Democrats have hammered McCain on that very issue, noting that campaign manager Rick Davis and senior adviser Charlie Black have spent decades lobbying in Washington. Both have left their companies but that hasn't stopped the criticism.
This month, the lobbying flap exploded with the disclosure that two McCain advisers worked for DCI Group, a consulting firm hired to improve the image of Burma's military junta. The two resigned and the new ethics policy followed.
Then, McCain fired an energy policy adviser, who also was a lobbyist representing energy companies, and asked another consultant to resign from the campaign's Virginia leadership team given involvement in an online outfit that criticized McCain's Democratic rivals.
The departures continued over the weekend with the resignation of former Texas Representative Thomas G. Loeffler, a part-time campaign volunteer serving as McCain's national finance co-chairman. Loeffler's lobbying clients include the parent company of a European plane manufacturer. His firm also has lobbied for other foreign interests and foreign governments, reportedly including Saudi Arabia.
All that has given Democrats fodder to attack McCain, and they have been relentless.