Later, the McCain campaign told Politico that McCain and his wife, Cindy, have at least four in three states - Arizona, California and Virginia. Newsweek recently estimated the two owned at least seven properties.
Democratic candidate Barack Obama used the remark to jab at McCain for his views on the U.S. economy. Campaigning in Chester, Va., Obama told voters, "I guess if you think being rich means you've got to make $5 million and if you don't know how many houses you have, it's not surprising you might think the economy is fundamentally strong."
With most Americans feeling the pinch of a worsening economy, the remark allows McCain's opponents to suggest that he personally is far beyond its grip and cannot feel their pain. It also displays the vast wealth of the McCains - his wife Cindy's fortune has been estimated at $100 million. It's also another example of how McCain, nearly 72, can be fuzzy and forgetful on some facts.
Low-key moments and offhand comments can become emblematic of a candidate's weakness, especially when they connect with average voters. For example, a photo of 2004 Democratic candidate John Kerry windsurfing became a sign that he was an elitist. Democratic candidate Al Gore, already criticized as a serial exaggerator, in 2000 mistakenly claimed to have been on a particular flight to oversee a disaster area. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush's encounter with a checkout stand grocery scanner was turned into a sign that he was out of touch with ordinary American life.
Obama's campaign, recognizing an opening in McCain's ignorance of his properties, quickly put out a TV ad linking McCain's admission about his houses with his recent remark that fundamentals of the economy remain strong.
On the campaign trail, McCain doesn't refer to his wife's wealth, which is based on her late father's Arizona beer distributorship. Obama's campaign has been trying to make the McCains' wealth more widely known to blunt criticism that Obama is an elitist out of touch with ordinary Americans.
Obama and his wife own one house, the family home in Chicago, his campaign said. They bought it in 2005 for $1.65 million after getting advice from Chicago businessman Antonin "Tony" Rezko, an Obama friend and contributor who was convicted in June on more than a dozen felonies in a corruption scandal. The case had no connection to Obama, and Obama has said it was a mistake to work with Rezko on buying the house.
In response to Obama's criticism Thursday, McCain campaign spokesman Brian Rogers asked: "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? 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?"
However, the McCain campaign erred in part of its criticism: Hawaii has no private beaches. Obama, who was born in Hawaii and spent most of his youth there, visited relatives during his vacation and joined members of the public swimming and surfing in the ocean.
In the 2004 campaign, Republicans tried to use wealth as a dig against Kerry even though President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were multimillionaires themselves. In 2005, Kerry reported a net worth between $165 million and $235 million, most of it controlled by his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry.
According to her 2006 tax returns, Cindy McCain had a total income of $6 million. She has not released her 2007 returns, which she files separately from her husband. McCain's tax returns showed a total income of $405,409 in 2007.
In a forum last week with the Rev. Rick Warren, McCain was asked to define the word "rich" and to give a figure. After promoting his tax policies, McCain said: "I think if you are just talking about income, how about $5 million?" The audience laughed, and he added: "But seriously, I don't think you can - I don't think seriously that - the point is that I'm trying to make here, seriously - and I'm sure that comment will be distorted - but the point is that we want to keep people's taxes low and increase revenues."
Obama, asked the same question at the forum, said those making $250,000 and higher are in the top 3 to 4 percent and "doing well." Obama and his wife, Michelle, reported making $4.2 million in 2007.--------------------- Associated Press writers Phil Elliott in Sedona, Ariz., Beth Fouhy in Chester, Va., and Ann Sanner in Washington contributed to this report.