Palin effect: Obama camp thrown off stride
The week has shown perils for Obama in running against the new GOP ticket.
JEFFREY R STAAB/AP
In just two weeks, the 2008 presidential race has become the Sarah Palin election.
How can Democratic nominee Barack Obama, no longer the shiny new object in American politics, recapture his mojo, some worried liberals are asking. For Republican nominee John McCain, the feisty, charismatic Alaska governor has fulfilled his fondest wish: to inject a little star power into his own campaign and give his ticket a fighting chance in an otherwise dreadful year for the GOP.
Even Karl Rove, President Bushâ€™s former political guru and now an informal adviser to the McCain campaign, has some advice for the Democrat: â€śIf Mr. Obama wants to win,â€ť he writes in The Wall Street Journal, â€śhe needs to remember heâ€™s running against John McCain for president, not Mrs. Palin for vice president.â€ť
Obama already knows that, it appears. After Palinâ€™s selection on Aug. 29, the Illinois senator suggested the best approach was just to leave her alone. But the Obama campaign has been going after her, producing an ad, for example, that challenges her image as a reformer by pointing out that she initially supported the congressional earmark for Alaskaâ€™s so-called â€śbridge to nowhereâ€ť before she opposed it.
And leading Democrats â€“ including Obamaâ€™s running mate, Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden â€“ have made comments now spun in the media as sexist. Senator Biden has called her â€śgood-looking,â€ť albeit in an effort at self-deprecation over his own looks. This week, in a local TV appearance in Milwaukee, Biden said the election of the McCain-Palin ticket would be a â€śbackward step for women,â€ť because â€śI assume she thinks and agrees with the same policies that George Bush and John McCain think.â€ť
On Wednesday, South Carolina Democratic chair Carol Fowler said to Politico.com that Palinâ€™s â€śprimary qualification seems to be that she hasnâ€™t had an abortion,â€ť a reference to Palinâ€™s decision to have her baby who was diagnosed with Down syndrome. Ms. Fowler later apologized, saying she was clumsily making a point about single-issue voters.
Then thereâ€™s Obamaâ€™s â€ślipstick on a pigâ€ť comment. McCain backers say Obama was taking a dig at Palin, who had quipped in her convention speech that a hockey mom is a pit bull with lipstick. Obama insists that was not his intention â€“ he was talking about Senator McCainâ€™s policies â€“ but the McCain campaign ran with it and fed it into the larger narrative of alleged Obama and Democratic sexism toward Palin.
The string of comments represents only a tiny fraction of what Obama and the Democrats have said and done this week, but they show the perils that Obama has faced in running against a ticket containing a woman.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, says that, overall with Palin, â€śThe Republican press management strategy has been brilliant.â€ť
â€śFirst, they withhold her, and so everything she does is newsworthy,â€ť Ms. Jamieson says. â€śSecond, theyâ€™re now building up such low expectations of her performance for [ABC anchor Charlie] Gibson and the debate, if she walks on stage and engages in standard forms of political [discourse], she will be proclaimed as perfectly competent.â€ť
But Jamieson also warns that the media are misreading the state of the race. It is essentially back to where it was before the conventions â€“ within the margin of error â€“ and the idea that Obama has no media strategy of his own is false.
His appearances this week first on Fox, with conservative host Bill Oâ€™Reilly, then on CBSâ€™s â€śLate Show With David Letterman,â€ť allowed Obama to show two sides of himself to audiences that may not be reached by other media. Up to one-quarter of Mr. Oâ€™Reillyâ€™s viewers are independents, or â€śsoft leanersâ€ť toward a candidate, and so going toe-to-toe against the combative Oâ€™Reilly could help Obama, she says. On Letterman, Obama got to present a relaxed, self-deprecating persona and reach voters who arenâ€™t necessarily following all the twists and turns of the campaign.
Not all Democrats are panicking about Obamaâ€™s post-convention performance.
â€śWith his Palin pick, McCain has temporarily obscured peopleâ€™s vision of what the race is really about â€“ a referendum on Bush and McCain,â€ť says Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster not associated with Obama. â€śItâ€™s up to Obama to get folks fixated back on the fundamental question thatâ€™s at stake in the election. I think heâ€™s doing that on the stump, and theyâ€™re doing that in the advertising.â€ť
Mr. Mellman says heâ€™s not â€śunconcernedâ€ť about the McCain campaignâ€™s tactic of jumping on every opening to use Palin as a vehicle against Obama, and he assumes the Obama team will respond in kind. â€śItâ€™s part of the everyday back-and-forth of campaigning,â€ť he says.
Still, to voters who just surf the headlines, this week has probably appeared to be all about lipstick and alleged sexism on the part of Obama. And generally, regardless of how voters took the lipstick comment, the larger theme of â€śDemocrats tied up in knots over Palinâ€ť isnâ€™t likely to go away anytime soon.
â€śObama had it right when she was first announced: Just leave her alone,â€ť says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., who does not believe the â€ślipstick on a pigâ€ť comment was targeted at Palin.
â€śThe more they beat her up, the more they lionize her,â€ť he says. â€śThe tactics are all wrong. In fact, theyâ€™re making Palin steadily more popular.â€ť