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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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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.")

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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."