Details can bedevil any presidential candidate. Republican John McCain announced this week that he backs an anti-affirmative action referendum that has drawn sharp debate in Arizona, his home state. Then he added a curious note: He doesn't know that much about it.
And when McCain was asked earlier this month about insurance coverage for Viagra but not contraceptives, he admitted he wasn't sure about that issue, though he had once voted against requiring coverage for birth-control pills.
At times McCain can appear to be short on details. In some instances, he has made misstatements or eyebrow-raising comments during the long days of campaigning in front of cameras and microphones. Sympathetic listeners call them understandable slips of the tongue and question whether any candidate can know everything. Opponents call them gaffes, or worse.
"Every candidate, Barack Obama included, has shown they will make a misstatement," said McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds. "John McCain reads and internalizes enormous amounts of information about the most pressing regional, national and international issues every single day. He has an incredible skill in that regard."
Indeed, the McCain campaign, conservative Web sites and others have compiled lists of misstatements by his Democratic rival. Some appear to be minor slips, such as Obama's reference to America's "57 states," or his saying "Israel is Israel's friend," when he meant the United States.
More substantively, in discussing minority issues Obama has said on at least two occasions that more black men are in prison than in college, which is inaccurate.
Last week Obama cited a bill passed by the Senate Banking Committee, calling it "my committee," although he is not on that panel.
Some of McCain's remarks seem to stem from his generally breezy nature and occasional tendency to leave details to subordinates. A case in point is the pending referendum in Arizona, which would bar affirmative action efforts in state agencies' hiring, contracting and college admissions.
Arizonans have debated the issue for years, and the referendum has been the subject of front-page stories in major Arizona newspapers. Much of the one-page text is government boilerplate, with the gist contained in the first sentence: "The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, color, sex, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting."
McCain, who has represented Arizona in Congress since 1983, took no stand on the referendum until last Sunday, when he was asked about it on ABC's "This Week." Sitting with McCain in Arizona, host George Stephanopoulos said: "Opponents of affirmative action are trying to get a referendum on the ballot here that would do away with affirmative action. Do you support that?"
McCain replied: "Yes, I do. I do not believe in quotas. But I have not seen the details of some of these proposals. But I've always opposed quotas."
"But the one here in Arizona you support," Stephanopoulos said.
"I support it, yes," McCain said.
On the question of Viagra versus birth-control pills, McCain was aboard his campaign bus on July 9 when a reporter asked about the fairness of insurance coverage for one but not the other.
"I certainly do not want to discuss that issue," said McCain, according to a CNN transcript.
The reporter replied, "But I think you voted against it."
"I don't know what I ..." McCain said. He rubbed his face while looking thoughtful. "I'll look at my voting record on it. But I have — I don't recall the vote right now. But I'll be glad to look at it."
McCain has made other remarks that raised questions about his attention to details, or to aides who presumably alert him to errors. On three recent occasions he referred to "Czechoslovakia," a country that hasn't existed since 1993, when it became Slovakia and the Czech Republic. He also implied that the so-called "Sunni Awakening" in Iraq occurred after President Bush announced plans in 2006 for a surge in U.S. troops, when in fact it began several months before.
Steve Hess, a government professor at George Washington University and former speechwriter for President Eisenhower, said voters should not be terribly concerned about such misstatements by Obama or McCain.
"I always thought it amazing that these folks, who are out 15 hours a day, running for president, giving instant answers and speeches, don't slip up more often," he said. "The rest of us do."
"By and large they are small things, they are easily corrected, and you know that they know the right answer," Hess said. But major news outlets pay more attention to such missteps, he said, because if they do not, "you're one-upped by some amateur with a cell phone out there" who will "rush off to his or her Internet blog" with a juicy soundbite or video clip.
Because McCain is nearly 72, Hess said, some critics "are starting to build in a different narrative" about his misstatements or inattention to details. "Once you do that, it feeds on itself."
But he warned Democrats to be careful.
"I don't think the public gets too upset about calling a country Czechoslovakia even though it hasn't existed for a while," Hess said. Berating a candidate for such slips, he said, "can have a boomerang effect."