But Wurzelbacher's story didn't quite hold up under inspection: He isn't licensed as a plumber in an Ohio county that requires one. He owes $1,200 in unpaid taxes. The dream purchase of the plumbing company where he works is a long way off no matter who wins the election. McCain acknowledged Thursday he hadn't ever spoken to the man he'd suddenly made a central figure in his quest for the presidency; McCain didn't speak with Wurzelbacher until Friday.
"Sorry, Joe," the Republican hopeful said Thursday on "The Late Show" with David Letterman for bringing Wurzelbacher a tornado of public attention he never sought.
The McCain campaign has always felt more improvisational than Obama's well-oiled machine, and the Arizona senator's years as a Navy pilot left him with a taste for daring feats. But recently, with polls showing McCain trailing Obama in several battleground states, his campaign operation has muddied McCain's message and complicated his efforts to gain ground.
Policy proposals have been floated and postponed. Lines of attack have been launched, then abruptly changed. And Joe the Plumber, like Sarah Palin before him, was pushed onto the national stage without a complete examination.
"When you run a campaign without a strategy and everything becomes tactical and your tactics don't work, you respond by finding other tactics," Republican consultant Ed Rollins said. "Unfortunately, that's helped Barack paint the guy who is clearly better prepared to be commander in chief as erratic and not stable."
McCain has always said he prefers to be the underdog, and he rolled out a feisty speech this week vowing a spirited fight to Nov. 4. But he has at times also seemed exasperated with the state of affairs.
In an interview with a North Carolina television station this week, the Arizona senator said he didn't know when he would return to the battleground state. "You know, my schedule lurches from day to day," he said, an edge in his voice.
Republican pollster John McLaughlin said the McCain operation is undergoing an experience very common among campaigns in their closing days.
"It's the thrashing between the events you can't control and what the proper message for the campaign should be," McLaughlin said. "In the past week, we've seen the McCain campaign thrashing."
McCain aides, meanwhile, carry on their duties with an acute sense of grievance against the national media, a group the candidate once jokingly referred to as his base.
On the campaign plane, aides berated a reporter for The New York Times after an editing error wrongly suggested McCain hadn't pushed back against a supporter's claim that Obama was an Arab. And a Reuters photograph released after the debate that captured a calm Obama next to McCain in a goofy, flailing pose reduced one aide to tears.