August 5, 2008

Obama Calls McCain’s Attacks Irrelevant: But Democrats Worry That New Ads Seem Effective

By Joe Hallett, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

Aug. 5--AUSTINTOWN, Ohio -- During a speech today on energy policy, Barack Obama offhandedly mentioned the two starlets who will become his symbolic soul mates for the rest of the campaign if his GOP opponent has his way.

"John McCain wants to talk about Paris Hilton and Britney Spears," Obama told 2,300 in the gym at Austintown Fitch High School near Youngstown. "That's his idea of a really relevant campaign, but I don't have time to deal with all that mess because Americans are facing some serious challenges."

What Obama casually brushed aside, though, has two of his top Ohio surrogates worried. For Gov. Ted Strickland and Sen. Sherrod Brown, attempts by McCain to define Obama as self-absorbed and elitist smack of the same August "swift-boating" attacks that worked four years ago against Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the 2004 Democratic nominee.

Strickland and Brown, traveling with Obama, said that former campaign advisers to President Bush, schooled in tactics by Karl Rove, Bush's longtime political adviser, are now working for McCain and have inspired television and Internet ads aimed at turning Obama's star power into a liability, especially with working-class voters like those dominating northeastern Ohio.

"Of course I'm concerned about their effectiveness," Brown said, referring to a series of new McCain ads, including a 30-second spot running in Ohio and other battleground states that mocks Obama's celebrity by comparing him with Hilton and Spears.

A McCain Internet ad, titled "The One," assigns Moses-like omniscience to Obama, showing the Democrat before 200,000 cheering Berliners and suggesting an unworldly arrogance. Strickland and Brown said McCain is copying the playbook used to "swift boat" Kerry in 2004, referring to ads that questioned Kerry's status as a Vietnam War hero.

"McCain's already started the negative stuff," Brown said. "He's got Karl Rove's assistants working for him. It's going to be the same kind of nasty campaign. The public is going to hear all kinds of exaggerations and distortions."

Strickland said Rove mastered the technique of turning an opponent's strength into a liability: "Barack Obama does have the ability to stir up hope and excitement and enthusiasm and they know that, so they're going to try to take that strength and somehow turn it into some kind of negative."

McCain campaign aides rejected claims that the ads are out of bounds and recalled that two Obama surrogates, Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, had attacked McCain's military service, which included imprisonment for five years in North Vietnam.

"There is nothing wrong with pointing out that Barack Obama opposes oil drilling and supports higher taxes," said Paul Lindsay, McCain spokesman. "If Barack Obama wants to have a serious debate, he can start by offering some solutions to challenges facing Ohio families."

Polls show the presidential race tightening nationally and in Ohio since McCain brought aboard Steve Schmidt, who was in charge of the Bush campaign war room. The attacks against Obama will continue this month with the release of two books by authors the Obama campaign says were connected to the "swift-boating" of Kerry.

Joseph White, chairman of the political science department at Case Western Reserve University, said McCain's effort to define Obama is working.

White said the McCain campaign is "pursuing the idea that Obama is not like you, that he is an elite Hollywood celebrity, not a salt-of-the-earth regular guy."

"They are trying to create an image of him that, in particular, will repel a portion of voters whose loyalties might be in doubt, and they're doing it in a very clever way," White said. "It's not the same as swift-boating, but it's the same concept to make this guy appear alien and unacceptable and not American."

With McCain scheduled to campaign Wednesday and Thursday in Ohio, Obama held town hall meetings today in Austintown and Berea, continuing to outline an energy policy he unveiled in Lansing, Mich., yesterday.

While Obama's surrogates complained about McCain's attacks, Obama launched a broadside against McCain, accusing him of being in the pocket of big oil companies.

"While Sen. McCain's plan won't save you at the pump anytime soon, it sure has done a lot to raise campaign dollars," Obama said. "Sen. McCain raised more than $1 million from the oil industry just last month, most of which came after he announced his plan for offshore drilling to a room full of cheering oil executives."

In a conference call with reporters, McCain officials criticized Obama's plan to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. They noted that Obama previously had opposed such a move and argued that the reserve should be used only in response to a supply disruption such as from a hurricane or terrorist act.

"He's grasping for something when he has been saying all along 'no' to that and 'no' to drilling and 'no' to other exploration," said Brecksville Mayor Jerry Hruby McCain's northeast Ohio chairman. "It just seems to me to be somewhat of a ludicrous position to take now, especially considering the security of our nation."

As Obama began speaking this afternoon at Baldwin-Wallace College, an unidentified photographer on the press riser heckled him, and then began reciting the Pledge of Allegiance before many in the audience of 2,700 shouted him down.

Obama looked at the man and said, "If you want to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, go ahead."

Obama then put his hand over his heart and led the crowd in the pledge.

Dispatch reporter Mark Niquette contributed to this story.

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