John McCain may have created his own housing crisis.
Hours after a report that the Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting didn't know how many homes he and his multimillionaire wife own, Democratic rival Barack Obama launched a national TV ad and a series of campaign stops aimed at portraying McCain as wealthy and out of touch.
With the economy ranking as the top issue in the race, Obama sought to turn McCain's gaffe into one of those symbolic moments that stick in voters' minds.
Think John Kerry sailboarding or the president father, former President H.W. Bush, wowed by a grocery store checkout scanner, Michael Dukakis riding in a tank or Gerald Ford eating a tamale with the husk still on.
"I think _ I'll have my staff get to you," McCain told Politico when asked Wednesday how many houses he owns. "It's condominiums where _ I'll have them get to you."
Later, the McCain campaign told Politico that McCain and his wife, Cindy, have at least four in three states _ Arizona, California and Virginia. Newsweek recently estimated the two owned at least seven properties.
Last week McCain cracked that being rich in the U.S. meant earning at least $5 million a year. With most Americans feeling the pinch of a worsening economy, the remarks allow Democrats to suggest that McCain cannot relate to ordinary voters.
It's also another example of how McCain, nearly 72, can be fuzzy and forgetful on some facts.
Campaigning in Chester, Virginia, Obama told voters, "I guess if you think being rich means you've got to make $5 million and if you don't know how many houses you have, it's not surprising you might think the economy is fundamentally strong." He returned to the McCain remark later, saying of teachers: "Most teachers hold themselves accountable. They didn't go into teaching to make money. They don't have seven houses."
The Obama campaign also announced 16 campaign events across the country to highlight the comment and try to turn the tables on McCain's effort to cast him as an elitist.
While both sides are trying cast the other as too rich to understand the needs of the working class, it's all about image. In modern politics, presidential candidates don't struggle to pay the mortgage. They don't often stand in line at the grocery store or frequent tamale stands either _ unless accompanied by hoards of traveling reporters.
The truth is, neither candidate is hurting for money.
McCain's tax returns showed a total income of $405,409 in 2007. According to her 2006 tax returns, Cindy McCain had a total income of $6 million. Her wealth is estimated by some at $100 million, based on her late father's Arizona beer distributorship. She has not released her 2007 returns, which she files separately from her husband.
Obama and his wife, Michelle, reported making $4.2 million in 2007.
In the 2004 campaign, Republicans tried to use wealth against Kerry even though President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were multimillionaires themselves. In 2005, Kerry reported a net worth between $165 million and $235 million, most of it controlled by his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry.
Underscoring how seriously the McCain campaign takes the house controversy, the Republican National Committee responded with a Web site highlighting Obama's ties to Chicago businessman Antonin "Tony" Rezko, a friend and contributor who was convicted in June on more than a dozen felonies in a corruption scandal.
Obama and his wife bought their home in Chicago in 2005 for $1.6 million after getting advice from Rezko. The corruption case had no connection to Obama, and Obama has said it was a mistake to work with Rezko on buying the house.
"Does a guy who made more than $4 million last year, just got back from vacation on a private beach in Hawaii and bought his own million-dollar mansion with the help of a convicted felon really want to get into a debate about houses?" McCain campaign spokesman Brian Rogers asked. "Does a guy who worries about the price of arugula and thinks regular people 'cling' to guns and religion in the face of economic hardship really want to have a debate about who's in touch with regular Americans?"
However, the McCain campaign got one thing wrong: Hawaii has no private beaches. Obama, who was born in Hawaii and spent most of his youth there, visited relatives during a recent vacation and joined the public swimming and surfing in the ocean.
In a forum last week with the Rev. Rick Warren, McCain was asked to define the word "rich" and to give a figure. After promoting his tax policies, McCain said: "I think if you are just talking about income, how about $5 million?" The audience laughed, and he added: "But seriously, I don't think you can _ I don't think seriously that _ the point is that I'm trying to make here, seriously _ and I'm sure that comment will be distorted _ but the point is that we want to keep people's taxes low and increase revenues."
Obama, asked the same question at the forum, said those making $250,000 and higher are in the top 3 to 4 percent and "doing well."
Associated Press writers Phil Elliott in Sedona, Arizona; Beth Fouhy in Chester, Virginia; and Ann Sanner and Douglass K. Daniel in Washington contributed to this report.
John McCain may have created his own housing crisis.