Classic tactic poses some risks
WASHINGTON - By launching a series of TV ads that ridicule Senator Barack Obama and question his readiness to be president, Senator John McCain has made a strategic decision to go directly negative much earlier than usual in the presidential race.
The McCain campaign hopes that the ads will define Obama before the presumptive Democratic nominee can fully introduce himself to voters - a classic campaign tactic. But the taunting commercials also risk backlash if they are seen at odds with McCain's repeated pledges to run a civil campaign on the issues.
Independent analysts have said that several assertions in the ads are based on questionable claims or outright falsehoods. In the TV spots, McCain suggests that Obama is responsible for rising gas prices and that Obama canceled a trip to visit wounded troops because he couldn't bring the media along - assertions strongly disputed by the Obama campaign.
Yesterday, McCain pushed his strategy to a new level, trying to use Obama's popularity against him. The Arizona Republican unveiled an ad that mocks Obama's appeal by saying he is "the biggest celebrity in the world," showing him speaking to 200,000 people in Berlin last week, and comparing him to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.
Obama told voters yesterday in Springfield, Mo., that McCain was trying to scare them into thinking that "he's not patriotic enough, he's got a funny name . . . he's risky."
Asked later about McCain's ads, Obama said, "I do notice that he doesn't seem to have anything very positive to say about himself, does he? He seems to only be talking about me."
Nonetheless, the ads have drawn Obama's attention.
At the Springfield town hall meeting yesterday, Obama disputed McCain's assertions that he would raise taxes, joking that he was a distant cousin of local legend Wild Bill Hickok and declaring, "I'm ready to duel John McCain on taxes right here, quick draw."
The McCain campaign saw that as yet another opening, saying Obama would rather "run for the hills" than accept McCain's challenge to debate him in town hall meetings.
Steve Schmidt, a senior adviser to McCain, explained yesterday's ad by saying that it pointedly asks: "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?"
But John Weaver, a former McCain adviser who resigned from the campaign last year, said yesterday that the ad was "childish," that such attacks diminish McCain, and that his campaign is a "mockery.""For McCain to win in such troubled times, he needs to begin telling the American people how he intends to lead us. That McCain exists. He can inspire the country to greatness," Weaver told the Atlantic magazine, in a comment quickly noted by the Obama campaign.