In a reversal from recent presidential campaigns, this year's race features a Democrat who is portraying the Republican as an elitist who can't relate to the concerns of ordinary Americans.
Obama and his running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, have mocked McCain for not being able to immediately tell an interviewer how many houses he owns. With the economy driving the campaign debate, Obama has run ads blasting McCain as "out of touch," an adherent of "country-club economics."
Today, the Obama campaign launched two new TV ads -- one accusing McCain of supporting tax breaks for Bermuda-based offshore businesses, and another pointing out that "McCain owns 13 vehicles, including three foreign cars," including a Lexus and a Volkswagen.
"They're certainly unleashing it now," said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University political historian. "Republicans have usually been better on the campaign trail at turning it against Democrats. But since McCain made that house comment, he gave them an opening. Democrats are countering the cultural arguments now."
Combating the 'Elitist' Label
Polls suggest that Obama has had some success in portraying McCain as out of touch. The most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll shows Obama with a 12-point edge as the candidate who "better understands the problems of people like you."
At a roughly similar point in the 2004 campaign, President Bush held a four-point edge over Democrat John Kerry on the same question.
"The return to serve here has been excellent," said Bill Carrick, a veteran Democratic consultant. "They're hitting it back pretty good."
Democrats from Adlai Stevenson to Michael Dukakis and Kerry have had to battle the "elitist" label. GOP candidates at the national level have used perceived economic and cultural differences to negatively portray their opponents -- and, in part, to blur the fact that their policies have typically offered less to poorer voters.
A similar strategy appeared promising for McCain early in the campaign. Obama had trouble connecting with white, working-class voters throughout the primaries, and a series of public statements seemed to widen the divide.
Obama publicly fretted about the price of arugula at Whole Foods markets while in Iowa -- a state that has no Whole Foods stores. Press reports described his love for the obscure organic beverage Honest Tea.
Arugula and Bittergate: Obama's 'Common Man' Challenges
Obama vacationed in Hawaii shortly after a foreign trip that included a tour of European capitals. Perhaps most famously, Obama's recorded observation that rural voters were "bitter" and tend to "cling" to religion and guns contributed to a potentially powerful image of Obama as culturally separated from Middle America.
"It shows an elitism and condescension toward hardworking Americans that is nothing short of breathtaking," McCain adviser Steve Schmidt said shortly after the "cling" comment came to public light. "It is hard to imagine someone running for president who is more out of touch with average Americans."
The McCain campaign took a broad swipe at portraying Obama as an elitist with its "celebrity" ad in which pictures of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton flashed across the screen shortly before Obama was pictured.
Vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin included a direct series of jabs at Obama in her convention speech, mocking the time he spent as a community organizer and focusing on the "bitter" quote.
"I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a 'community organizer,' except that you have actual responsibilities," said Palin. "I might add that in small towns, we don't quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren't listening."
She added, "We tend to prefer candidates who don't talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco."
Cars, Houses Makes McCain Seem Out of Touch
But McCain's words and actions have detracted from such a message. After it was revealed he was wearing $520 Ferragamo loafers, McCain last month couldn't recall for an interviewer how many homes he owned. At a faith forum, when asked for a "specific number that would make someone "rich" instead of "middle class," he said, "How about $5 million?"
Newsweek reported last weekend -- despite McCain having said he had bought American cars "literally all my life" -- that three of the 13 cars he owns are foreign-made. Last week, McCain repeated his refrain that the "fundamentals of our economy are strong," even after financial panic had started to spread through Wall Street and beyond.
Mark Brewer, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, said the most recent revelation about McCain's cars helps fashion a "powerful issue" for Democrats to highlight.
"The cumulative effect of all of this is somebody who is out of touch," Brewer said. "For people struggling to hang on to their homes or have a car, this is somebody who just doesn't relate."
McCain Counters Elitist Claims With POW Years
Carrick, the Democratic strategist, said Obama aides have been more effective in driving their message of "elitism" because McCain has given them more concrete examples to work with.
"The McCain attack is based on an image only -- that's elusive. Image is in the eye of the beholder," he said. "But seven houses, and he didn't know he had seven houses? Thirteen cars? That all is memorable stuff."
But Obama has to be careful in pushing such a message. McCain can fall back on a personal story "that many Americans find compelling," Zelizer said.
Indeed, McCain cited his time as a POW when asked by Jay Leno about the number of houses he owns.
"I spent 5½ years in a prison cell. I didn't have a house, I didn't have a kitchen table, I didn't have a table, I didn't have a chair," McCain said. "I spent those 5½ years not because I wanted to get a house when I got back home."
Both candidates are personally wealthy, though McCain -- whose wife inherited a lucrative beer distributorship -- is considerably more well-to-do. This week Roll Call ranked McCain as the 13th-wealthiest member of Congress, and Money magazine has pegged his net worth at about $40 million; the magazine estimated Obama's net worth at $1.3 million.
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