The Democrats are showing how good they have become at a traditionally Republican strength - rapid media response, jumping on the slightest gaffe by Republicans to dominate the news cycle with unfavorable coverage of the other party.
“Barack Obama and the Democrats are winning the battle of the sound bites,” said veteran Republican campaign strategist and pollster John McLaughlin.
“Obama always has been very good at this tactically. Whether against Hillary Clinton in the primaries or against John McCain now, Obama has been good at choosing what to say and what not to say,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “When Bill Clinton said something dumb, the Obama people were all over it immediately.”
Mr. Obama, though a novice compared with Mr. McCain in political and campaign experience, seized the latest opportunity on Thursday when he gleefully suggested the Arizona senator was inured to the pain consumers feel at the gasoline pump, the grocery store and elsewhere.
The history of presidential campaigns in America is rich with gaffes and awkward moments on both sides. It’s the ability of one side to exploit them better than the other that’s always at issue, and Republican strategists are noting how much more successful the Democrats are at grabbing quick moments to get out their message: that a McCain win in November would be the equivalent of a third term for President Bush.
“To date, Obama’s campaign and its ability to pivot, attract wanted attention, and deflect unwanted attention is certainly one of the most impressive operations in recent memory,” said Craig Shirley, a Ronald Reagan biographer and founder of a public relations firm that serves conservative clients.
In contrast, the campaigns of such Democratic presidential hopefuls as Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis were widely criticized, even at the time, for letting fester such issues as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Willie Horton and the Pledge of Allegiance.
The latest example grew from comments former Sen. Phil Gramm, Texas Republican and one of the McCain team’s chairmen, made during a breakfast meeting and interview Wednesday at The Washington Times.
Mr. Gramm, who has a doctorate in economics, observed that the U.S. economy is far more competitive abroad than the press and this nation’s political leaders give it credit for, and partly as a result Americans sound like a nation of “whiners” when it comes to the state of the economy. He said Americans had gotten themselves into a “mental recession.”
That was all the rapid-response raptors at the Obama campaign and Democratic National Committee needed to hear.
“What John McCain, George Bush, Phil Gramm just don’t understand is that the American people aren’t whining about the state of the economy,” immediately snapped DNC spokeswoman Karen Finney. “They are suffering under the weight of it - the weight of eight years of Bush-enomics that John McCain and Phil Gramm have vowed to continue.”
A few hours later, during a town-hall-style campaign event in Fairfax on Thursday, Mr. Obama verbally pummeled Mr. Gramm’s “whiners” comment.
“It’s a figment of your imagination, these high gas prices,” the Illinois senator mockingly said to laughter from his audience. “This comes after Senator McCain recently admitted that his energy proposals for the gas tax holiday and drilling will have mainly psychological benefits.”
This ability to slash the opposition’s soft underbelly every time it’s exposed may be making all the difference in the two current campaigns.
“A couple of months ago, McCain was ahead, now Obama is,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “The Obama campaign knows how to use message agenda tactically.”
The two campaigns have mirror image strategies. Mr. Obama’s is to make Mr. McCain look as if he’s offering a four-year extension of the Bush “out of touch” presidency - a losing proposition in every poll in the last two years. Mr. McCain’s is to make Mr. Obama look as if he’s about to finally saddle America with four years of a George McGovern presidency that never was.
The difference now is in the alacrity of attack when an opening appears.
A huge hole appeared in the Obama armor on the same day Mr. Gramm made his gaffe. Michelle Obama, the candidate’s wife, said in Pontiac, Mich., that the Bush administration’s $600 stimulus was so meager it could only buy a pair of earrings.
Not only did the Republican National Committee and the McCain campaign fail to use the “earrings” gaffe to trump the “whiners” comment, but Republican media guru Mike Murphy, who pundits insisted last week would soon be appointed as the McCain campaign’s message maven, managed not to mention the earrings gaffe in a “Meet the Press” appearance Sunday.
“Until John McCain develops his own message on a series of issues that contrast with Obama and that the majority of Americans agree with, McCain will continue falling into this Bush III trap,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “What McCain needs is a winning contrast message that makes it a one-on-one race with Obama, and not a Bush-McCain vs. Obama contest.”
Chief political writer Ralph Z. Hallow served on the Chicago Tribune, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Washington Times editorial boards, was Ford Foundation Fellow in Urban Journalism at Northwestern University, resident at Columbia University Editorial-Page Editors Seminar and has filed from Berlin, Bonn, London, Paris, Geneva, Vienna, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Belgrade, Bucharest, Panama and Guatemala.
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