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Palin effect: Obama camp thrown off stride

The week has shown perils for Obama in running against the new GOP ticket.

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Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, says that, overall with Palin, “The Republican press management strategy has been brilliant.”

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“First, they withhold her, and so everything she does is newsworthy,” Ms. Jamieson says. “Second, they’re now building up such low expectations of her performance for [ABC anchor Charlie] Gibson and the debate, if she walks on stage and engages in standard forms of political [discourse], she will be proclaimed as perfectly competent.”

But Jamieson also warns that the media are misreading the state of the race. It is essentially back to where it was before the conventions – within the margin of error – and the idea that Obama has no media strategy of his own is false.

His appearances this week first on Fox, with conservative host Bill O’Reilly, then on CBS’s “Late Show With David Letterman,” allowed Obama to show two sides of himself to audiences that may not be reached by other media. Up to one-quarter of Mr. O’Reilly’s viewers are independents, or “soft leaners” toward a candidate, and so going toe-to-toe against the combative O’Reilly could help Obama, she says. On Letterman, Obama got to present a relaxed, self-deprecating persona and reach voters who aren’t necessarily following all the twists and turns of the campaign.

Not all Democrats are panicking about Obama’s post-convention performance.

“With his Palin pick, McCain has temporarily obscured people’s vision of what the race is really about – a referendum on Bush and McCain,” says Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster not associated with Obama. “It’s up to Obama to get folks fixated back on the fundamental question that’s at stake in the election. I think he’s doing that on the stump, and they’re doing that in the advertising.”

Mr. Mellman says he’s not “unconcerned” about the McCain campaign’s tactic of jumping on every opening to use Palin as a vehicle against Obama, and he assumes the Obama team will respond in kind. “It’s part of the everyday back-and-forth of campaigning,” he says.
Still, to voters who just surf the headlines, this week has probably appeared to be all about lipstick and alleged sexism on the part of Obama. And generally, regardless of how voters took the lipstick comment, the larger theme of “Democrats tied up in knots over Palin” isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.

“Obama had it right when she was first announced: Just leave her alone,” says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., who does not believe the “lipstick on a pig” comment was targeted at Palin.

“The more they beat her up, the more they lionize her,” he says. “The tactics are all wrong. In fact, they’re making Palin steadily more popular.”