- The Washington Times - Friday, August 8, 2008

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.

Democrats agree.

“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.”

Long before the “swift boat” ads caught Mr. Kerry off guard in a sweltering August four years ago, President Bush’s re-election team embarked on a relentless $80 million advertising campaign that ran from March through May. At the end, Democrats gloated that the offensive failed - their candidate’s favorability rating had dipped only slightly. But savvy pollsters noted that Mr. Kerry’s negatives had skyrocketed - from the teens to the high 30 percentages.

While the comedic onslaughts are nothing new for the 71-year-old Mr. McCain - “Saturday Night Live” actors told so many jokes about his age that he finally appeared on the show in a fake campaign in which he touted his “oldness” as a prime qualification for president - the barbs are new for Mr. Obama.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee has long been a media favorite, and cable news networks provided gushing, round-the-clock coverage of his recent European tour, including his Berlin speech to an estimated 200,000 Germans. Media watchdog groups say the first-term senator has garnered far more positive reporting than his opponent, especially during his jaunt abroad.

Mr. Obama hoped to use the trip to shore up his foreign policy credentials, but Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank pulled out a line from his speech - “I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions” - and wrote a piece titled “President Obama Continues Hectic Victory Tour.”

A landslide followed. Gerard Baker, a columnist for the British newspaper the Times, mocked Mr. Obama in biblical terms. “And so it was, in the fullness of time, before the harvest month of the appointed year, the Child ventured forth - for the first time - to bring the light unto all the world.”

The comedic vein was immediately mined by liberal icons like Mr. Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who plays a character modeled after Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly as he mocks Republicans.

Mr. Colbert on Tuesday made a reference to the Democrat’s claim that Americans can save as much gasoline as new offshore drilling would produce simply by properly inflating their tires.

“What an elitist,” the comedian said as he sipped a Starbucks frappucino in a mock-effeminate pose. “I hear he wants to inflate those tires with arugula.”

Therein lies the rub: Comedians are not pulling the persona from this air, rather using words, some a year old or more, as they paint what the Obama campaign calls a faulty caricature of their candidate.

On July 27, 2007, while campaigning in Adel, Iowa, Mr. Obama sought to connect with the regular folk being squeezed by rising prices for groceries. “Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?” he asked voters gathered for a rural issues forum (turns out there isn’t an outlet of the upscale store in Iowa).

Other off-the-cuff (and off-the-record) comments have been more meaty. In a private San Francisco fundraiser, he told wealthy donors that people in small rural towns - flyover country - “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”

The Republican National Committee created a Web site called “Audacity Watch.” Nearly every day, the RNC adds an item, deeming it audacious when Mr. Obama refers to his campaign plane as “O Force One” or models a round placard posted on his podium after the presidential seal.

The McCain campaign put together an ad with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, which played almost endlessly on news channels and drew millions of hits on YouTube. An Internet ad titled “The One” - the nickname for Mr. Obama among top McCain aides - featured an image of Charleton Heston as Moses parting the Red Sea.

One Democrat said the McCain tack is working. “To a certain extent the ads are having some effect,” said Tom Daschle, a former Senate majority leader and an Obama adviser.

Not every Democrat agrees. “The attacks on Obama have been silly and frivolous and largely without much effect,” said former Clinton pollster Dick Morris. “This early stuff about celebrity and arrogance are just expensive jabs, not the real knockout shots.”

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