In just two weeks, the 2008 presidential race has become the Sarah Palin election.
How can Democratic nominee Barack Obama, no longer the shiny new object in American politics, recapture his mojo, some worried liberals are asking. For Republican nominee John McCain, the feisty, charismatic Alaska governor has fulfilled his fondest wish: to inject a little star power into his own campaign and give his ticket a fighting chance in an otherwise dreadful year for the GOP.
Even Karl Rove, President Bush’s former political guru and now an informal adviser to the McCain campaign, has some advice for the Democrat: “If Mr. Obama wants to win,” he writes in The Wall Street Journal, “he needs to remember he’s running against John McCain for president, not Mrs. Palin for vice president.”
Obama already knows that, it appears. After Palin’s selection on Aug. 29, the Illinois senator suggested the best approach was just to leave her alone. But the Obama campaign has been going after her, producing an ad, for example, that challenges her image as a reformer by pointing out that she initially supported the congressional earmark for Alaska’s so-called “bridge to nowhere” before she opposed it.
And leading Democrats – including Obama’s running mate, Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden – have made comments now spun in the media as sexist. Senator Biden has called her “good-looking,” albeit in an effort at self-deprecation over his own looks. This week, in a local TV appearance in Milwaukee, Biden said the election of the McCain-Palin ticket would be a “backward step for women,” because “I assume she thinks and agrees with the same policies that George Bush and John McCain think.”
On Wednesday, South Carolina Democratic chair Carol Fowler said to Politico.com that Palin’s “primary qualification seems to be that she hasn’t had an abortion,” a reference to Palin’s decision to have her baby who was diagnosed with Down syndrome. Ms. Fowler later apologized, saying she was clumsily making a point about single-issue voters.
Then there’s Obama’s “lipstick on a pig” comment. McCain backers say Obama was taking a dig at Palin, who had quipped in her convention speech that a hockey mom is a pit bull with lipstick. Obama insists that was not his intention – he was talking about Senator McCain’s policies – but the McCain campaign ran with it and fed it into the larger narrative of alleged Obama and Democratic sexism toward Palin.
The string of comments represents only a tiny fraction of what Obama and the Democrats have said and done this week, but they show the perils that Obama has faced in running against a ticket containing a woman.
“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.”