Image: Sen. John McCain
Carolyn Kaster  /  AP
Sen. John McCain addresses the crowd as he makes a campaign stop at the in South Portland, Maine, Monday.
By NBC/National Journal Reporter
updated 7/22/2008 12:52:16 PM ET 2008-07-22T16:52:16

The term "flip-flop" became a vital part of the political vernacular during the 2004 election, but this time around the label doesn't seem to be sticking to either major party's presumptive nominee. This, despite the fact that critics of John McCain say that the candidate who is set to win his party's nomination in 2008 is a very different person from the one who failed to secure the same nomination in 2000.

But McCain's more contemporary flips may prove more costly than his eight-year-old flops. On several occasions since his nomination became all but inevitable, McCain has been caught in some inexplicable contradictions. It's unclear whether these situations show his personal political instincts being tempered by the strategies of his campaign staff, or if McCain occasionally loses track of his campaign's message. But either way, when McCain has to go up against himself, voters can become easily distracted from the issues.

Just last week McCain found himself pushing back against his own campaign when his communications director, Jill Hazelbaker, went on cable television twice in one day to criticize Barack Obama's overseas trip as "political."

"Let's drop the pretense that this is a fact-finding trip and call it what it is: the first-of-its-kind campaign rally overseas," Hazelbaker said on Fox. Later Hazelbaker told MSNBC , "This trip is a political trip for him. It is one giant photo opportunity. It is not designed to inform his world view."

The McCain campaign sent out an e-mail touting Hazelbaker's sharp attack of Obama on Fox News and then held a conference call with Randy Scheunemann, their top foreign policy adviser, who called Iraq "fundamentally a political decision for Barack Obama."

Yet when McCain was asked about Hazelbaker's comments in a conversation with reporters on the back of his campaign bus that same day, he didn't go beyond backhanded compliments for Obama's overseas travel, avoiding the outright criticisms that his campaign employed earlier in the day.

Video: McCain campaign on Obama's trip "Well, I can only give you my opinion -- and I will talk to her -- but the fact is I'm glad that he's going to Iraq, and I'm glad that he's going to Afghanistan, and it's long, long overdue," McCain said.

Speaking to reporters just hours later in Grand Haven, Mich., McCain attempted to clarify his statements from the bus: "We just had a discussion about whether his trip was political or not -- to Afghanistan and Iraq. I offered to be with him. And I'll look forward to his conclusions when he finishes that part of his trip. If he has political rallies in other places, obviously then it's a political trip." (Obama is expected to address a crowd of thousands in Berlin on Thursday.)

On the same day, McCain also decided to change the language he used to discuss improvements in Iraq. For several months he had argued that the U.S. was "succeeding" in Iraq and that the so-called "surge" in troop levels -- which he has supported -- was working. But last week McCain shifted his rhetoric, and no one could quite figure out why.

"In Iraq we have a government that is pretty effective," McCain said to a group of General Motors employees at the company's technology center. "We have a justice system that is stumbling and haltingly moving forward, and we have succeeded. I'm not saying we are succeeding. We have succeeded."

Yet when he was asked the day before why he had suddenly decided that the U.S. had "succeeded" in Iraq while they had been "succeeding" for many months, McCain could not cite any new developments that had convinced him.

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Video: McCain: 'I know how to win wars' "Military, economic, political and all the benchmarks that we said that the Iraqi government had to meet," he listed. "They haven't got them all, but the fact that the government is functioning effectively, the economic situation is improving dramatically, the Iraqi government now has control of the major cities of Mosul, Basra and Sadr City as well as Baghdad.... Do they have a lot more to go? A distance to go? Yes, and it's very fragile. It can be reversed. But they've succeeded."

Senior adviser Charlie Black said McCain had simply "thought it over" and come to the conclusion that the U.S. had "succeeded." Nevertheless, on the day when McCain had unilaterally declared "success" in Iraq, his campaign released no statements or fact sheets to support his claim.

This lack of message discipline is not a new phenomenon in the McCain campaign, but its candidate has so far evaded much political fallout, despite the mounting number of examples that he has trouble voicing the same positions as his campaign. But so far, this list of examples has omitted McCain's recent contradictions on matters of policy.

Last week, a New York Times article quoted McCain as unequivocally rejecting gay adoption. "No, I don't believe in gay adoption," McCain told the Times, instead encouraging "traditional couples" to adopt. Just days later, his campaign released a statement saying that McCain "could have been clearer" in support of the states' rights to decide the issue.

"McCain believes children deserve loving and caring home environments," the statement read. "And he recognizes that there are many abandoned children who have yet to find homes. John McCain believes that in those situations that caring parental figures are better for the child than the alternative."

The dissonance in the McCain campaign's message can raise questions about where he stands on a given issue, and at times it seems as if the candidate is fighting his better judgment in favor of what strategists recommend. Yet as McCain continues to hold events designed to get his message out, the noise surrounding his statements may drown out the substance.

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