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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee Montagne is away. I'm Steve Inskeep.

It's been a quiet week in the presidential campaign. Mostly we've been waiting - waiting for news of vice presidential choices. And in the absence of that news, other questions have taken hold. Consider this question put to Senator John McCain about his real estate holdings.

Unidentified Man: How many houses do you and Mrs. McCain have?

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona, Presidential Candidate): I think - I'll let my staff get to you.

INSKEEP: It wasn't long before Senator Barack Obama took advantage.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois, Presidential Candidate): By the way, the answer is John McCain has seven homes. So there's just a fundamental gap of understanding between John McCain's world and what people are going through every single day here in America.

INSKEEP: One of those watching the latest back and forth is NPR's Mara Liasson. She's our national political correspondent and she's on the line. Mara, good morning.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Okay. This dispute can sound a little silly but does it get something that's important to these campaigns?

LIASSON: Well, sure. It sounds like it's all about houses, but in fact it's about who's an elitist, who's out of touch. You know, John McCain has spent a lot of time trying to frame Obama and define him as a celebrity who's exotic and different. He talks about arugula to farmers in Iowa. Now the Obama campaign, with this great gift of ammunition from John McCain, is trying to define him as someone who's out of touch, doesn't know how many houses he owns, he confused.

The other day he said he defined rich as someone who makes $5 million or more. And I think the Obama campaign is taking advantage of this gaffe, and I do think it's a gaffe on John McCain's part. It's on the order of that confused encounter George H.W. Bush once had with a supermarket scanner.

INSKEEP: Well, let's listen to the way that Obama has used this in an ad.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Man #2: Maybe you're struggling just to pay the mortgage on your home. But recently John McCain said the fundamentals of our economy are strong. Hmm. Then again, that same day when asked how many houses he owns, McCain lost track - he couldn't remember.

LIASSON: So there you get a twofer. He's too old, he can't remember, and he doesn't know how many houses he owns. And then the ad goes on to say there's one house America can't afford John McCain to move into - and there's a picture of the White House.

INSKEEP: Not that John McCain has been silent in response to this.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Man #3: Barack Obama knows a lot about housing problems. One of his biggest fundraisers helped him buy his million dollar mansion, purchasing part of the property he couldn't afford. From Obama, Rezko got political favors, including 14 million from taxpayers. Now he's a convicted felon facing jail.

INSKEEP: So much for that high-toned campaign.

LIASSON: So much for that high-toned campaign that they both promised. Well, look, they've both gone negative and there's a reason for that. The race has tightened. Obama's small lead has been shrinking, although he's doing much better in the electoral map polls based on state-by-state polling, and of course that's what counts in an American election.

But one of the problems that Obama has is he still hasn't consolidated support from Hillary Clinton supporters. The Wall Street Journal this week said that among those Hillary Clinton primary voters - a lot of them white working class voters - 21 percent of them say that they are going to vote for John McCain.

So to the extent that Obama is trying to make a more populist pitch, which would work with those voters - less professorial, more visceral - this debate over how many houses McCain owns is a great gift.

INSKEEP: Hillary Clinton's name seems to have almost disappeared from the speculation about Obama's possible running mate.

LIASSON: Yes, it has. Yesterday Obama dropped some clues. He said he has made up his mind. We know we're going to see this person tomorrow in Springfield, Illinois with Obama. He told Time magazine that when people see the choice he's made, they're going to know that he choose someone who complimented his strengths - not supplemented them - someone who didn't want to get their name in the press, and who wasn't a yes man. So those are the clues he dropped yesterday and you can figure out who the vice president is just based on that. I'm sure it's very clear.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: You could've said that about anybody in America. They would've said it even if it wasn't true.

LIASSON: Well, some people supplement his strengths and not compliment them. But I think the short list is still the same, and the good thing about it is we don't have very much longer to wait.

INSKEEP: Okay. Well, NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson will be standing by when we learn more. Mara, thanks very much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Steve.

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