SEDONA, ARIZ. — A political gaffe, it is said, occurs when a politician inadvertently tells the truth.
Thus did John McCain's frank admission that he doesn't know how many homes he and his wife own spark the biggest, nastiest mud fight of the presidential campaign.
"I think -- I'll have my staff get back to you," the presumptive Republican nominee said when asked about his homes by Politico.com, the website reported Thursday. "It's condominiums where -- I'll have them get to you."
McCain's candor came as a godsend to rival Barack Obama, whose Democratic campaign has appeared to suffer under relentless attacks from McCain. For the first time, opinion polls this week showed the race effectively tied.
Under pressure to fight back, Obama seized on McCain's stumble Thursday, ridiculing him as grievously out of touch with middle-class Americans at a time of falling housing prices, soaring energy costs and widespread economic distress.
Obama also slammed McCain's claim this week that America's economic fundamentals were strong and his comment last weekend, which aides said was a joke, that he defined someone as rich if they earned more than $5 million.
"I guess if you think that being rich means that you've got to make $5 million and if you don't know how many houses you have, then it's not surprising that you might think the economy was fundamentally strong," Obama told supporters at a community college in Chester, Va.
"But if you're like me and you've got one house, or if you were like the millions of people who are struggling right now to keep up with their mortgage so they don't lose their home, you might have a different perspective."
As a final zinger, Obama added, "By the way, the answer is John McCain has seven homes."
McCain and his wealthy wife, Cindy, have four homes -- in Arizona, California and Virginia -- worth about $9 million on local tax rolls. The McCains also own at least four other residential properties as investments or for use by other family members, public records show. All of the properties are held in the name of Cindy McCain and her dependent children through partnerships, limited liability companies and trusts.
With Obama preparing to name his running mate, perhaps as early as today, and party stalwarts starting to gather in Denver for the Democratic National Convention next week, Democrats could barely contain their glee at McCain's unforced error.
Obama's campaign announced 16 events where supporters planned to focus on "McCain losing track of how many homes he owns."
Tim Kaine, the Democratic governor of Virginia and a much-mentioned vice presidential prospect, took an early lead in mocking McCain.
"He couldn't count high enough, apparently, to know how many houses he owns," Kaine told CNN's "American Morning."
For Democrats, the kerfuffle carried a clear whiff of payback. Four years ago, Republicans turned a harsh spotlight on the five homes owned by the Democratic nominee, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, and his heiress wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry.
For Republicans, it was deja vu of another kind. Last month, one of McCain's top economic advisors, former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, was forced to resign from the campaign after he told a newspaper that the United States was "a nation of whiners" who were suffering a "mental recession" over the economy.
By midafternoon, both campaigns were in full battle cry and sought to portray the other candidate as living an ostentatious lifestyle. Both campaigns called reporters, rushed out scathing TV attack ads, unveiled new websites and unleashed surrogates.
McCain, who huddled with advisors at his desert compound in Sedona, Ariz., said nothing in public. A nine-car motorcade took him to a nearby Starbucks early in the morning, where he ordered a large cappuccino. McCain otherwise avoided reporters.
Forced into damage-control mode, his campaign aides counterattacked to reinforce their claim that Obama is an elitist.
"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 spokesman Brian Rogers said in a statement. "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?"
Most of Obama's income stems from his two bestselling books and an advance on a children's book. He and his family stayed at a friend's home last week in Hawaii, where beaches, in fact, are all public. Obama spent part of his childhood in Hawaii, and his grandmother lives there.