Barack Obama’s carefully choreographed persona as an unassailable agent of hope has come into the cross hairs of a dangerous foe - the late-night comic.
Jay Leno earlier this week quipped that when the Democratic presidential aspirant was asked what he thought about being called arrogant, “well he said he was ‘above having to answer that question.’ ”
Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” recently joked that on his trip to Israel, the Democratic presidential aspirant “made a quick stop at the manger in Bethlehem where he was born.”
David Letterman said that the senator from Illinois was so overconfident that he proposed changing the name of Oklahoma to “Oklabama.”
“When Letterman is doing ‘Top Ten’ lists about something, it has officially entered the public consciousness,” said Dan Schnur, a political analyst with the University of Southern California.
“The late-night comics don’t introduce these things into the cultural discussion, but they reinforce the impression in a very strong way,” said Mr. Schnur, the communications director in Sen. John McCain’s 2000 campaign.
“The most effective weapon against a political opponent is humor, especially mocking,” said Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. “When it gets picked up by late-night comedians, it becomes part of the mainstream and reaches even more voters more effectively.”
Just as in campaigns of the recent past, Republicans are seeking to paint their presidential opponent as elitist but also as unfit for the job of commander in chief. Although Democrats view the dog days of summer as downtime - Mr. Obama will take next week off to vacation in Hawaii with friends - the Republican Party is busy defining its opponent and setting out the terms of the debate that will begin in earnest after Labor Day.
“Every campaign is won in June, July and August, and that is especially true of presidential campaigns,” Mrs. Marsh said. “You use these months to plant the seeds of doubt about your opponent that will be hammered home in the ads and rhetoric of September and October.”
The strategy worked in Republican campaigns against three of the past four Democratic candidates:
cMichael Dukakis - The diminutive governor of Massachusetts, also battling a perception that he was weak on national security, orchestrated a ride in a 60-ton M-1 tank, dressed in full battle gear. The helmet looked huge on the candidate, prompting weeks of jokes by Johnny Carson. A poll after the event found 25 percent of those surveyed were less likely to vote for Mr. Dukakis.
cVice President Al Gore was mocked for his lack of personality and his flexibility with facts, (he never claimed he invented the Internet, but comedians had a field day anyway).
Mr. Leno joked in 2000 that during the debates, “if Bush can’t remember a fact or detail, Al Gore will make one up for him.”
cSen. John Kerry, who famously said he voted for a Senate bill before he voted against it, became a caricature of a flip-flopping politician who would say or do anything to win. Mr. Leno said in 2004 that “the presidential election really offers a choice of two well-informed opposing positions on every issue. They both happen to be John Kerry’s.”