For several weeks, the McCain campaign has been entertaining the credulous with a series of TV ads that tag Barack Obama as a feckless celebrity. And during that time, the Obama campaign's responses have basically ranged from studied silence to sighs of disappointment that the GOP would dare resort to such tactics. The problem for Obama, however, is that negative ads are generally effective...especially when they go unanswered. Voters typically say they don't like negativity, but they remember it anyway; during the Democratic primaries, exit polls showed that Hillary Clinton routinely outpaced Obama among those voters who believed she had attacked him unfairly.
Today, however, the Obama camp is lashing back. Imagine that. The Democrats have finally roused themselves from their usual summer stupor - in presidential election years, summer is the season when they traditionally allow themselves to be targets for Republican ridicule - and have actually opted to counterattack. Today, the Obama campaign is slated to air a TV ad that exposes John McCain as a hypocrite who has long marinated in the celebrity culture he now purports to equate with airheaded superficiality.
The Obama ad - which tags McCain as "Washington's biggest celebrity" and shows him hobnobbing with Leno, Letterman, the gang on SNL, and the gals on The View - comes not a moment too soon, because the McCain team is now up with yet another new attack on Obama's fame. This one is a 60-second web ad that basically skewers Obama's supporters as space cadets; moreover, it closes with an Obama fan joking about how "hot chicks dig Obama," and it doesn't take a genius to grasp the subtext of that line, particularly since the ad itself features three white women gushing over the candidate. (What's next? Will the McCain camp hire a blonde actress to say, "Barack, call me," as the Tennessee Republicans did in 2006 when they successfully targeted black Senate candidate Harold Ford?)
Anyway, the Obama people have finally retaliated by showing quick excerpts of McCain's longtime love of the celebrity limelight, but they could have gone a lot further by tallying the key stats on screen: 12 visits to The Daily Show, 10 visits to Leno, eight visits to Letterman, three times to Conan O'Brien, two visits to Entertainment Tonight, a visit to Regis and Kathy Lee, a guest stint on 24, a cameo in the movie Wedding Crashers, and a celebrity guest shot on World Wrestling Entertainment Raw. They could have also tossed in his six homes (thanks to his rich wife), his family's lavish use of credit cards, and his reported affection for $500 shoes.
They chose, instead, to mix the McCain celebrity imagery with more traditional fare - namely, five separate shots of McCain hugging it out with ideological compadre George W. Bush...which does make a fair bit of sense, given the fact, as even Fox News pointed out on Sunday, that McCain in the Senate has voted with Bush 95 percent of the time.
The bottom line is that the Obama people have at last recognized the importance of countering the Republican attacks. Indeed, it's likely that the GOP strategy, crafted by the Karl Rove alumni who signed on earlier this summer, has helped give McCain some much-needed traction, at least by holding Obama's national lead to modest (and vulnerable) single digits. There's no way that the Obama people would be lashing back with a McCain-as-celebrity ad unless they were truly concerned that McCain's trash talk might be swaying the impressionable. (Low-information voters are far more likely to remember that "hot chicks dig Obama" than remember what the candidate said about Russia and Georgia. Much less know where to find Georgia on a map.)
Perhaps a sustained counterattack on McCain's celebrity-mongering might blunt the GOP's low-road messaging. Nevertheless, I wonder whether the Obama camp is making a mistake by putting the candidate in front of 75,000 people for his nomination acceptance speech on Aug. 28. That spectacle will further inspire Obama's current supporters, but the clever Rove alumni in the McCain camp may well use that imagery to refine their caricature of Obama as a pop celebrity and little more - to take his alleged strength as a candidate and spin it as a weakness. Will that work? Just remember, the votes of the credulous count the same as everybody else's.