13 Weeks to Go

High-minded pundits tut-tutted when John McCain let loose a new attack ad against Barack Obama last week, dissing the Democrat as "the most famous celebrity in the world," amid images of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.

The conventional wisdom held that the ad (and several others released within a few days) was too silly, too negative and too hypocritical for a Republican contender who'd insisted earlier he'd run a high road campaign.

As usual, the conventional wisdom was wrong.

Obama and his party have had the political wind at their backs for months: The economy is tanking, the incumbent GOP president has lower polling numbers than journalists, motorists are cranked off about high gas prices, folks are losing their homes across the county, and Mr. Excitement just finished a world tour with adulation worthy of the Beatles. Into that set of political conditions, McCain fired off a quick burst of spots trashing his rival; the spots were widely panned, both for content and strategy, by the cognoscenti and the talking heads.

But as of Tuesday, exactly three months before the Nov. 4 election, McCain remained essentially tied with Obama, according to
several new polls.
At a point when the Democrat had an opportunity to crack the race open early, he instead finds a game and gritty McCain still hanging around, hanging around, closer than ever in his rear view mirror.

The bottom line: Obama failed to capitalize on the media manna he was blessed to receive as a big bonus during his recent trip to Iraq, Afghanistan and Europe, while McCain's gamble of going negative early appears to have paid off.

On a basic level, the ads, and the considerable commentary they stirred up, worked simply because they put McCain back in the news, on equal footing with Obama. A weekly content analysis of campaign coverage by leading news organizations, conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism showed that, for the first time, McCain attracted as much news coverage as Obama in the days following the Britney/Paris ad:

"In total, the chain of events set in motion by the celebity ad accounted for almost one-third of the campaign coverage last week. Hence, McCain's attack advertising strategy, which played off the notion that the press was infatuated with Obama, and blended it with the McCain theme that Obama offered less than meets the eye, drove the media narrative last week."

As a tactical matter, the attack ads achieved at least three important results that will influence the shape of the race over the next three months:

1) McCain took control of the calendar. With Friday's opening ceremony in Beijing, the Olympic Games will capture widespread public attention for the next two weeks, and push the presidential race into the background. The day after the closing ceremony, Aug. 25, the Democratic convention that will lionize and nominate Obama will open. As the estimable William Bradley notes in a smart analysis posted here, McCain's ad push disrupted and upset Obama's bid to build on the momentum of his big trip, carry it into the convention and emerge from Denver sky high.

2) McCain took control of the campaign agenda. By picking a fight through his ads, plus ginning up a a brief but nasty spat the two camps got into over race, the Arizona Senator threw Obama off his core message of the need to change unpopular Republican policies on the economy and foreign policy, and put him into a defensive posture of squabbling over campaign strategies. Any day when Obama is talking about Paris Hilton instead of home foreclosures is a good day for McCain.

3-McCain raised doubts about Obama. By applying political ju-jitsu to one of Obama's greatest strengths his rock star charisma - the Republicans erode trust in Obama's leadership and substance, at a time when many Americans are beginning to learn about him for the first time.

That represents the biggest challenge for Obama in an election which, for better or worse, will be a referendum about him.

During Hillary Clinton's last gasp forced march through the end of the Democratic primaries, she hammered away, raising the same kind of doubts about Obama and taunting him that he couldn't "close the sale" with voters, particularly among the white working class.

Alex Castellanos, a veteran GOP campaign consultant, offers a very solid and substantive, if partisan, deconstruction of this dangerous issue for Obama here.

By failing to cash the chips from his trip abroad, Obama once again finds himself in the position of having failed to finish off a rival when he had a chance. So he remains vulnerable to the other side's argument that he is a great first date, but not necessarily the guy to go home with.

Worse for Obama, just when the kerfuffle over the celebrity ad calmed down, Paris her own self chose to remind everyone in America about it. She cooperated with a faux campaign spot, posted on You Tube, in which she declares her own candidacy for president, while reclining on a pool lounger in a skimpy swimsuit and heels.

In the ad, she calls McCain "the wrinkly, white-haired guy," and sniffs at his audacity in using her image for his attack. She also guarantees that he'll get several days more mileage out of it.

And now to sports: It pains me _ deeply_ to say this, but as the Dodgers head north for a weekend series against the Giants, they probably bought themselves a ticket to the playoffs with their trade for Manny Ramirez. Manny instantly becomes the most feared hitter in a pathetic division where an Arizona team with 15 guys named Reynolds and Tracy have led the pack most of the season, a true impact player who will put the Bums in Blue over the top in the stretch. Aarrggh.

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