Are McCain’s attacks on Obama doing him any good ?

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Few people would associate Barack Obama with Britney Spears or Paris Hilton – America’s blondest and least political of celebrities. But thanks to the latest campaign advertisement from John McCain that link has now been established.

By Edward Luce in Washington

“He is the biggest celebrity in the world,” says the narrator against a picture of Mr Obama speaking to 200,000 people in Berlin, which then cuts to images of Ms Spears and Ms Hilton. “But is he ready to lead?”

Wednesday’s advertisement was the latest direct attack on Mr Obama that has fed into a growing angst among Republicans that their candidate’s campaign for the US presidency lacks a broader strategy.

In recent weeks, Mr McCain has sought to make up for the disproportionate media coverage of his Democratic rival by poking fun at Mr Obama’s persona and his allegedly self-inflated view of himself.

The McCain campaign privately calls Mr Obama “The One”. The Republican National committee campaign maintains an “Audacity Watch” that chronicles Mr Obama’s most highfalutin claims. And observers on the right often refer to the Democratic candidate as “Saint Obama”.

But many Republicans, including John Weaver, Mr McCain’s former campaign manager who described yesterday’s advertisement as “childish”, worry that Mr McCain is jeopardising his reputation for being a civil campaigner without putting forward a coherent message about what he would do as president.

Others, such as Mark Penn, who was head of strategy for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, say the advertisements are not particularly effective. Mr Penn devised Mrs Clinton’s notorious “3am phone call” advertisement which questioned Mr Obama’s credentials to be commander-in-chief.

Mr Penn also pointed to the previous McCain advertisement last weekend, which wrongly claimed Mr Obama cancelled a visit to see wounded troops in Germany because the Pentagon would not permit the media to accompany him. This has since been debunked.

“It looks like the McCain campaign is grasping at anything to try to grab attention because the Obama campaign is getting so much more media coverage,” said Mr Penn. “It is perfectly reasonable to attack your opponent’s readiness to be president. But if you’re going to do it you should do it effectively.”

The Obama campaign said: “On a day when major news organisations across the country are taking Senator McCain to task for a steady stream of false, negative attacks, his campaign has launched yet another – or, as some might say ‘Oops! He did it again’.’’

Others allege that Mr McCain’s attacks are no substitute for a strategy. “There is no McCain strategy as far as I can tell,” said Norm Ornstein, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “McCain is trying to sow doubts in voters’ minds about Obama and presenting himself as a safe harbour. But he is not doing it very well.”

But the McCain campaign, which remains in a close race with Mr Obama according to the opinion polls, suggests there will be plenty more to come.

“Look this is a legitimate approach – Obama is a celebrity, probably the biggest celebrity in the world,” says Charlie Black, a senior adviser. “He had 200,000 Germans screaming for him and none of them have a vote in this election. It is perfectly legitimate to ask whether that qualifies him for the job.”

Juleanna Glover, another McCain adviser, said: “By the standards of political campaigns this was a benign advertisement. Defining your opponent early and negatively is a strategy. That is the game at this stage of a campaign.”

The Financial Times

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