McCain and condoms for Africa

What happens when the "Straight Talker" gets stumped.

Published March 16, 2007 4:23PM (EDT)

There was a brief moment of confusion on the McCain bus this morning. Such is the danger of his freewheeling campaign style. The questions from the press pack covered all manner of issues, from Afghanistan's opium problem to the number of push-ups McCain, who is 70, can still do. ("Thirty to 40 ... But it's pretty easy to cheat on a push-up.") Then came a question McCain was not expecting. Would he support taxpayer funding for contraception in Africa to prevent the spread of AIDS?

Initially he said he would support a program that provided abstinence education, while providing contraception in those places where abstinence was not being followed. He said his major counselor on the subject was Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, a conservative doctor who has taken a particular interest in sexually transmitted diseases and has frequently opposed contraception distribution.

The conversation moved on. But a couple of minutes later, McCain grew concerned. He turned to the Salon reporter who asked the question and said he may want to revise his answer. "Let me think about it a little bit. I had not ...," he trailed off. "I don't know if I would use taxpayers' money"

Suddenly the straight talk became halting and confused. "We are on the Straight Talk Express," he admitted, before equivocating. "I'm not informed enough on it. Let me find out ... I'm sure I have taken a position on it in the past ... I have to find out my position on it ... I am sure I am opposed to government funding. I am sure I support the president's policy on it."

He asked his aides to search for a position paper Coburn had written on the topic. But it could not be found. A second reporter asked if McCain believed that condoms prevent the spread of AIDS, an easy statement of fact. But McCain did not immediately answer.

"Theoretically, it is like a lot of issues -- there is no magic bullet," said a third reporter, trying to help out the candidate. "Everything will have a marginal effect."

"The question is not whether I support contraception," McCain attempted. "The question is whether I support government funding of it."

But McCain did not have an answer. His aides promised one will be forthcoming.

Update: After some research, McCain's staff just tried to end the confusion. "He's consistently voted agaist taxpayer funded contraception programs," says Brian Jones, McCain's communications director.

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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John Mccain R-ariz.