Campaign '08 enters goofy stage

Paris Hilton for president! Just kidding, but the election's silly season may be eroding Obama's 'celebrity.'

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    We'll always have Paris: She fired back, teasing McCain and launching her own 'candidacy.'
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Washington - After a week of tire gauges, Britney Spears, and Paris Hilton, Barack Obama is no doubt ready for a week in his native Hawaii, where he heads Friday for a vacation with his family.

Apparently the public is also ready for a break: According to the Pew Research Center, 48 percent of Americans say they have been hearing too much lately about Senator Obama, the Democrats' presumptive presidential nominee. Only 26 percent say the same about his Republican opponent, John McCain. And in what Pew calls a "slight, but statistically significant margin – 22 percent to 16 percent – people say that recently they have a less rather than more favorable view of [Obama]."

In a close race, with Obama consistently ahead of Senator McCain by about four points, a slight shift either way can be crucial. So after what can easily be called one of the goofiest weeks ever in presidential campaign politics, the real question may be whether it has any lasting effect – especially as it played out during the summer doldrums.

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"Most folks are paying attention with only one ear, at most," says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "But still, you can establish a theme at this point that builds through the convention. What McCain has done is he's blunted Obama's momentum coming home from Europe and reestablished the sense that you don't know much about this guy."

The first McCain campaign video that got people buzzing highlighted footage of Obama's pop-star-esque reception in Berlin, followed by images of celebrities Ms. Spears and Ms. Hilton – an attempt to portray Obama as just another celebrity (read: vapid). The video became a viral hit online, with endless replays on cable TV. McCain also broke through the buzz barrier by handing out tire gauges to celebrate Obama's birthday last Monday – an attempt to mock Obama's suggestion that motorists keep their tires inflated to save fuel. The McCain campaign portrayed the advice as the sum total of Obama's energy plan.

By the end of the week, the tire gauge gambit had played out, after it became clear that keeping tires inflated is standard advice for fuel efficiency – and Obama himself fought back indignantly, saying, "It's like these guys take pride in being ignorant."

But the biggest hit of the week may have been Paris Hilton's own mock "campaign ad," rebutting that "white-haired dude" (McCain) and laying out her own energy plan as she lounged poolside in a leopard-print bathing suit.

Obama seemed to recover a bit by week's end – with an assist from Hilton and her mother, a McCain donor who complained that the "celebrity" attack ad against Obama was "a complete waste of the country's time and attention." (McCain's own mother called her son's ad "kinda stupid.")

The bottom line, though, is that for the first time since the general election began two months ago, McCain got just as much media coverage as Obama. But to have a lasting impact, McCain's attacks have to be grounded in reality, says Jeffrey Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

"The fact that 1 million people watched the video with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears – I wouldn't regard that as a signal of anything other than that they are objects of fascination," he says. "The reality is that Barack Obama's credentials are thin – the public believes that. Negative campaigning has the best chance of succeeding when it's aimed at real vulnerability rather than trying to make up an image out of whole cloth."

This week's breakout of silly season may be in part a result of the YouTube-ization of politics, in which an entertaining video can be produced relatively cheaply and gain millions of viewers. The campaigns themselves seem to be producing about one a day, and without investing in major ad buys, the videos can be test-marketed online.

But Mr. Berry doesn't blame the media for covering all this political entertainment. After all, he says, voters have a limited appetite for dry policy deliberations.

On balance, Republicans were happy with the week, with McCain for once driving the conversation and Obama back on his heels. Some Democrats were privately wringing their hands that Obama wasn't fighting back hard enough, but also taking comfort in the public warnings of some Republicans – including former McCain aide Mike Murphy – that McCain was risking damage to his brand by going negative.

"They're going for the 15 to 20 percent who aren't paying much attention and are still going to vote, and figure they can knock Obama down now and identify him early before the convention," says Democratic strategist Peter Fenn. "But there's a lot of evidence I think that this trivializes McCain. He's supposed to be an experienced, serious guy here."

Republican strategist Tony Fabrizio argues that, on balance, "it was probably one of the better weeks for McCain."

But he is concerned that he does not see a unifying theme in the McCain campaign. "This is one of those things where they threw something against the wall and it happened to stick," says Mr. Fabrizio. "But the problem is, when you have things that are reactive or spur of the moment and they are not tied to a unified theme, it's kind of tough to move to the next thing."

Fabrizio hopes the McCain camp can keep beating Obama on energy. "But the media are going to grow bored of that," he says. "There's only so many gimmicks before they move to the next thing. I'm hoping McCain doesn't get caught flat-footed by Obama the way Obama was caught flat-footed."

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