The window into McCain's character

Given the fact that John McCain has stepped into a steaming pile of manure - by confessing that he is clueless about the extent of his own lavish lifestyle - the only question now is whether the heretofore timid Obama campaign has the requisite moxie to exploit this priceless gift...not just today, but for the next 73 days.

Let's put it this way: If this situation was reversed, if a Democratic candidate had so egregiously whiffed on a question of how many houses he has, the GOP would pound away with repetitive precision until the damning message about the "out-of-touch rich elitist" was emblazoned in every American mind.

The fury of the McCain camp's counterattack yesterday (Obama has a house that a sleazy guy helped him buy! How dare anyone attack a former POW!) was vivid proof that Republicans recognize their dilemma. They may not be able to govern worth a darn, as the last eight years have demonstrated, but they are masters of the visceral campaign message. And they well understand that McCain made the mistake of handing the Democrats a visceral campaign message. It ain't brain surgery:

"McCain doesn't even know how many houses he has."

McCain uttered a truth about himself, a truth that the GOP would have preferred he not reveal. He provided an honest window into his character, an aspect of his psyche laid bare. He let slip that he lives a life that in no way resembles the lives led by the millions of average Joes whom he aspires to represent - a life so bountiful that he doesn't even know its full bounty.

When McCain told reporters on Wednesday that he'd have to check with his staff about how many houses he and Cindy have - the correct answer, apparently, is anywhere from four to eight, depending on how one counts - the average American (who has one residence) was surely tempted to conclude that this guy in his gut can't possibly understand their everyday problems.

And that's even without the McCain lifestyle accessories: the affinity for $520 Ferragamo calfskin loafers...the family ownership of a parking lot valued at $1 million (four times the median value of an American home)...the ownership of a private jet (Cindy, speaking recently: "In Arizona, the only way to get around the state is by small private jet, and I wound up loving it - and buying a plane, you know")...and the enjoyment of a family fortune valued as high as $100 million.

McCain fans can insist this is all no big deal, but Republican strategists know otherwise - because in the past they have sought to exploit exactly this type of situation. And there was even a time when they targeted one of their own. In the GOP primaries 20 years ago, candidate Bob Dole was peppered with newspaper questions about his own wealth (mostly condos and trust funds, courtesy of wife Elizabeth), and he suspected (apparently with good reason) that his rival, the senior George Bush, was stirring up trouble.

And then Dole made matters worse. During a campaign trip to New Hampshire, reporters asked him, What's your net worth? And Dole replied: "Beats me." They asked him again. He replied: "I don't have any idea." This triggered a firestorm that raged for days, and played a role in Dole's defeat (and Bush's victory) in that crucial early state.

So it's no surprise that the McCain camp tried to change the subject yesterday by invoking Obama's past ties to convicted political fundraiser Tony Rezko, who helped Obama buy his (only) house. The Obama-Rezko connection (which I detailed nearly six months ago) is indeed fair game for McCain. The problem, however, is that the Rezko details - he's heading to jail for state kickback crimes that have nothing to do with Obama - can't be easily reduced to bumper-sticker shorthand.

By contrast, McCain's cluelessness about his own luxury is a gift one-liner for a Democratic campaign that has spent most of August wilting in the heat. The only question is whether Obama and surrogates can affix it to McCain with a branding iron.

If Obama names his veep today, I'll be back.