There’s a candidate in this presidential race who remains a mystery — hazy, undefined, so full of contradictions that voters may see electing him as an enormous risk. I’m referring to the cipher known as John McCain.

In fact, there are some basic things about McCain that apparently even McCain doesn’t know. Asked Wednesday by reporters from Politico how many houses he and his wealthy wife, Cindy, own, McCain responded, “I think — I’ll have my staff get to you.” The correct answer seems to be somewhere between four and seven, but who’s counting?

I don’t begrudge McCain his multiple residences or his $520 Ferragamo shoes. I understand that he was just being flippant and unresponsive when he said at the Saddleback Church forum last weekend that being rich meant having an income of at least $5 million a year. But it’s a stretch, to say the least, for McCain to portray himself as a Regular Joe while painting Barack Obama as some kind of jet-set celebrity.

It’s understandable that McCain would want to fuzz this aspect of his biography; at a moment of great economic dislocation and anxiety, people might question one’s ability to feel their pain if they know that one’s net worth may be somewhere north of $100 million. Much less comprehensible, and much more troubling, is McCain’s habit of “Straight Talking” himself into the wilderness.

When it was pointed out that McCain’s pronouncements on the economy often do not conform with his official positions, the candidate’s chief economic adviser indicated that we should pay attention to the authorized version — despite the fact that McCain “has certainly I’m sure said things in town halls” that might deviate.

In other words, don’t pay such strict attention to what McCain says because he doesn’t speak officially for his own campaign. No wonder he was so insistent in trying to lure Obama into a series of town hall encounters, where Obama might feel constrained by such irrelevancies as consistency and arithmetic.

I guess McCain’s unreliability as a spokesman for himself on the issue that voters tell pollsters they care most about should come as no surprise, given his earlier confession — since retracted, sort of — that he doesn’t really understand economics that well. He is supposed to be an expert on foreign affairs and national security, however — and here, too, the cannon has come unbelayed and is rolling perilously around the deck.

“We are all Georgians,” McCain said in response to the Russian invasion. It was an attempt to define the moment with a memorable line, reminiscent of JFK’s famous declaration in Berlin. If McCain was just trying to burnish his commander-in-chief credentials while Obama vacationed in Hawaii, OK, fine, that’s politics. If he was serious, though, he needs to clarify the unsettling implications of what he intended to be a stirring phrase. Precisely what was being stirred?

Not the hopes and ambitions of the people of Georgia; by then, they had already realized that despite all the Bush administration’s freedom rhetoric, nobody was going to come save them. Certainly not war-weary American voters.

What McCain successfully roiled was the nationalism and bitter nostalgia for great-power status that simmer below the surface of Russian public opinion. Strongman Vladimir Putin plays these sentiments like a violin. A candidate for president of the United States should not further strengthen Putin’s hand — and thus make the next president’s job that much harder.

For months, McCain has been arguing for measures that would isolate Russia. He then called the Georgia invasion “the first probably serious crisis internationally since the end of the Cold War.” If he doesn’t want to help start a new Cold War, you can’t tell from his loose rhetoric.

I’m leaving aside his mini-misstatements in which he confused Sunnis with Shiites or otherwise garbled salient facts about Iraq. What alarms me is the pattern of inconsistency. One day he’s soothing, the next he’s abrasive. One day he makes a flat-out pledge not to raise taxes, the next he says that everything is on the table as far as Social Security is concerned. One day the buck stops here, the next he’s not authorized to speak for, ahem, himself.

It’s true that John McCain has been around a long time. But do we really know what he’d do as president? Do we really know who he is?

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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