GEE'S BEND, Ala. — For John McCain, it was either the perfect political photo op that reflected an image he's worked years to polish or a moment of striking, and potentially damaging, political dissonance.
It was a breezy, sunny day this week in lush southwest Alabama. McCain was surrounded by friendly African-American ladies serenading him with spirituals as they rode a ferry across the muddy Alabama River.
McCain, sporting his Navy cap and sunglasses, even scampered to the bridge to take a turn at the wheel, news cameras clicking away to record his moment as helmsman.
Perfect image — the maverick Republican wooing a voter group that few in his party bother to court.
Except that McCain, the longtime scourge of congressional "earmark" spending who's promised to veto every bill with earmarks if he's elected president, was aboard a ferry that's financed by a $2 million earmark in a 2005 spending bill.
McCain said there was no inconsistency because the ferry, which connects a tiny, isolated hamlet to a larger town, was a worthy project.
"It's fine with me," McCain said. "What's not fine with me is we don't have the competition and the fair comparison between any earmarked project and others that may be as valuable."
There were other jarring moments on McCain's weeklong "It's Time for Action" tour, which took him to rural Alabama; hard-bitten urban Youngstown, Ohio; bleak Appalachia; and the Katrina-ravaged Ninth Ward of New Orleans.
In Youngstown, McCain sounded like a populist, decrying an education system in which those who live in affluent areas have access to better schools than those who live in poor areas. Yet he defended the system of paying for schools through local taxes, which helps create that dichotomy because rich localities can afford better schools than poor ones can.
McCain also routinely decried "out-of-control federal spending," saying it's one of the biggest problems facing the country.
Yet in Youngstown, he said that the federal government likely would have to raise its investment in special education, given the increasing autism rates in the United States.
In Inez, Ky., he promoted federal subsidies to bring Internet access to rural areas and said he'd look at making it easier for part-time workers to get unemployment insurance.
In New Orleans, McCain said he supports a series of expensive measures to protect the city from floods, such as restoring barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico, and said he'd like to see the abandoned homes of the Lower Ninth ward renovated and inhabited.
The Democratic National Committee slammed McCain as a hypocrite all week in a series of "John McCain Myth Buster" press releases. Earlier this month, DNC Chairman Howard Dean mocked McCain as a "flip-flopper."
McCain said his trip and his promises were consistent with his avowed conservatism.
"It's not that it changed any of my core principles and philosophies, but it sure makes me say, `OK, what are we gonna do here?'" McCain said. "How are we gonna work more innovatively and prioritize more. I believe the role of government is to help the needy and to give people a level playing field."
Still, McCain risks muddying his image in the public mind, said Karen Johnson-Cartee, an expert in political communication at the University of Alabama.
"When he goes into a place like Selma and says, `Y'all need this, that and the other,' to me, he's created a violation of type," meaning it goes against the image he's built over the years, Johnson-Cartee said. "You're only as good as how solid that public image is. ... Trust is all you've got, and if you violate that trust, you're screwed."
Mark Salter, a McCain senior adviser who's worked as hard as anyone to craft what the campaign calls "McCain's brand" over the past decade, disputed that assessment, saying that the tour's message fit right in with what people think about the Arizona senator.
"It's the essence of his authenticity," Salter said. "He puts his country before other considerations, be they personal or political. Everything he did this week showed that. If it's of concern to Americans anywhere, it's of concern to him."
McCain acknowledged several times over the week that he might not win many votes in Selma, Ala., or New Orleans. But independent and moderate voters throughout the country will see coverage of his trip — and be reminded of that carefully crafted image.
"It hits the central theme he's trying to raise," said Earl Black, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston. "He goes after a different group. ... He's trying to present a different image of the Republican Party."
Whether he was building his brand or expanding his experience, he certainly seemed to connect with voters.
"I just like his character," said Doug Hammond, a mechanic from Lovely, Ky.
"I just can't say anything bad about him," said Irene McCoy, a Wal-Mart employee from Pikeville, Ky.
"I love that he took the time and came here to see about us," said Mary Lee Bendolph, a quilter from Gee's Bend. "That meant something."
McClatchy Newspapers 2008