ATLANTA (Reuters) - Voters can swallow the fact that Republican presidential candidate John McCain is seriously rich but they might not stomach the idea that he doesn’t understand their own money worries.
That is how McCain could be hurt — and Democratic rival Barack Obama helped — by the dispute that emerged this week when the Arizona senator said he was unsure how many houses he owned, commentators said.
Both candidates in the tight race to succeed President George W. Bush are competing to present themselves as in tune with voters concerned about job losses, high gas prices and the home mortgage crisis.
Until now Obama has been largely on the defensive over accusations first leveled during the primary campaign that he was an elitist who struggles to relate to ordinary voters.
“It’s not (McCain’s) wealth per se because we don’t resent the rich, we want to be them,” said Steven Greene, a professor of political science at North Carolina State University.
“The issue becomes ‘out of touch.’ We want presidents who ‘get’ what the average American is dealing with,” he said.
The dispute arose on Wednesday when McCain was asked by the Politico newspaper how many houses he owns with his wife Cindy, a wealthy heiress to a beer distributorship.
“I think — I’ll have my staff get to you,” McCain replied. “It’s condominiums where — I’ll have them get to you.”
The Politico said McCain’s staff counted “at least” four houses but the couple own between eight and 11 homes depending on how they are counted and several are worth more than $1 million, said the Talking Points Memo political blog.
Within hours, the Obama campaign pounced, releasing a Web video on the issue. Obama also tied it to a comment McCain made saying the U.S. economy was “fundamentally strong.”
McCain “obviously doesn’t have a very clear sense of what ordinary Americans are going through,” he said.
Michael Franc of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank said the dispute could damage McCain. “He may come across as detached from reality. How can he talk about strains on the family budget when he doesn’t know how many homes he has?”
But Republican strategist John Feehery argued McCain’s status as a Vietnam war hero would blunt the impact of the row because voters viewed him as a patriot and a public servant.
“As long as McCain can communicate that he understands the problems of normal people ... this will be a 24-hour story,” Feehery said.
Perceptions of wealth play a big role in elections in the United States, a society in which the pursuit of riches is part of the national myth.
It’s almost impossible for impoverished people to achieve national office but in a country whose democracy was forged in 1776 during a war against a British monarch, political leaders also must show they have the common touch.
In the 2004 presidential election, some voters were turned off by Democratic candidate John Kerry when he was portrayed as an elitist who liked windsurfing, spoke French and went to school in Switzerland.
The charge was damaging because Democrats have long touted their commitment to redressing inequality through government action. They thus fall prey to accusations of hypocrisy over money more easily than Republicans, who have long been seen as the party of business and the rich.
Obama earned millions through the publication of two books but he has made much of his upbringing by a single mother and his difficulties paying off his student loans — all part of a narrative designed to persuade voters he understands them.
But he fended off accusations that he was an elitist in April after he said that voters in Pennsylvania were bitter about economic decline and clung to God and guns as a result.
He quickly said the comment was a mistake but it fed into a perception that his years as a Chicago law professor had made him overly academic and out of touch.
“When people say ‘elitist’ (about Obama), it’s not so much the economic background, it’s the professorial attitude ... where he is almost from an ivory tower and is detached from real problems,” Feehery said.
Editing by Tom Brown and Bill Trott