By Sam Youngman and Aaron Blake - 07/30/08 07:43 PM EDT
John McCain has launched a new advertisement comparing Barack Obama with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears — a move that underscores the GOP candidate’s hope of portraying his rival as a lightweight celebrity rather than a man suited to be commander in chief.
The ad, calling Obama “the biggest celebrity in the world,” was followed Wednesday by a memo and conference call with McCain’s senior strategists, suggesting a concerted effort to turn the Democrat’s strength, his unprecedented fame, into a weakness that can be used against him.
On the call, McCain’s campaign manager, Rick Davis, said Obama’s campaign “is focused on the development of an enormous image of celebrity status.”
Davis later sent out a fundraising e-mail featuring the ad and asking donors to contribute so “millions of people” could also see it.
The ad will appear on national cable stations and in the battleground states of Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.
McCain senior adviser Steve Schmidt made it clear that the distinction the campaign is trying to make in the minds of voters is that while Obama is undeniably a celebrity, he is not ready to be president.
“The question that we are posing to the American people is this: Is he ready to lead yet?” Schmidt said. “And the answer to the question that we will offer to the American people is no, that he is not.”
The Obama campaign responded with a zinger of its own, saying the ad is another example of McCain going negative in the campaign.
“On a day when major news organizations across the country are taking Sen. McCain to task for a steady stream of false, negative attacks, his campaign has launched yet another,” Tommy Vietor, an Obama spokesman, said in a statement. “Or, as some might say, ‘Oops! He did it again.’ “
Davis said he will “let the American people decide what is negative and what is not negative,” but he and Schmidt hammered away at Obama as a heavyweight celebrity and a lightweight leader.
“We will pose the question — stipulating the fact that [Barack Obama] is the biggest celebrity in the world — do the American people want to elect the world’s biggest celebrity, or do they want to elect an American hero, somebody who is a leader, somebody who has the right ideas to deal in a serious way with the problems we face?” Schmidt said.
The ad also made waves on a day when Obama was trying to keep the focus on the economy with three events in the swing state of Missouri.
And it is already making the rounds of entertainment news organizations much like Obama has done previously by posing for the covers of People magazine and conducting interviews together with his family on “Access Hollywood.”
That is likely good news for McCain, as his campaign struggled to break into last week’s news cycle while Obama traveled abroad with foreign receptions that Davis described as “much more like what you would expect from somebody releasing a new movie.”
That trip, which has inspired much of the McCain campaign’s criticisms of its celebrity opponent, was thought by many to be the result of the Arizona senator’s challenge to Obama to visit Afghanistan and Iraq. If that was the case, something Obama denied, then most analysts agree that McCain’s dare backfired.
The ad is also an acknowledgment that the McCain campaign is increasingly accepting the conventional wisdom that the election is a referendum on Obama and whether he can make the sell with voters who are still unsure about the Illinois Democrat’s credentials.
Some analysts are warning, however, that the new McCain strategy could end up costing him, saying that attention drawn to Obama’s celebrity and travel helps a freshman senator look more presidential.
Analyst Charlie Cook noted that the effort to define an opponent is a two-way street and blowback is always a possibility.
Increasingly, he says, McCain is being cast as the “cranky old man, standing on his front porch in a bathrobe and slippers, yelling at the neighborhood kids to get off his yard.
“While Obama is a less defined figure, more vulnerable in some ways to a new and negative caricature, I don’t see how the McCain campaign can see that this cranky and angry persona is good for their candidate,” Cook said. “Americans don’t elect angry and cranky people president — no one wants that in their living room on the TV set every night. I think this is a very dangerous turn for McCain.”
One Democratic strategist not affiliated with the Obama campaign said the McCain campaign has to keep Obama from looking like the next commander in chief “by going after him every time he does something that looks presidential.”
“The Republican strategy is DOA because Obama is successfully demonstrating that he can play the role of president,” the strategist said. “I think it’s something [the Obama campaign] needs to address, but if that’s the best that the Republicans have, then they don’t have much.”
The ad can be seen on The Hill’s Briefing Room .