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McCain's campaign of mockery may be a double-edged sword

  • Story Highlights
  • McCain camp's new comedy-lined ad assault rankles Obama, Democrats
  • Art of the subtle put-down difficult to master in politics, analysts say
  • Ex-McCain adviser: "This tomfoolery needs to stop"
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By Rebecca Sinderbrand
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Forget the Karl Rove playbook. For the past few weeks, Sen. John McCain's team seems to have been working from the equally brutal Don Rickles manual of presidential politics.

Sen. John McCain has faced criticism for a new ad attack on his Democratic rival.

Sen. John McCain has faced criticism for a new ad attack on his Democratic rival.

McCain's campaign has been filling the traditional late-summer news lull with a string of stunts featuring a prickly humor that could come from the insult comic's act. It could prove a potent political weapon against Sen. Barack Obama or it could bomb in his face like a bad joke.

There are irony-laced videos. There are eBay-friendly props. And there is McCain himself, who has incorporated some of the best laugh lines into his stump speech.

The McCain camp's comedy-lined assault effectively rankles Democrats -- but does it work on the press and public?

As attention-grabbers, at least, they've been an unqualified success. Video Watch more on McCain's campaign approach »

In mid-July, the McCain camp released its "Obama Love" video, a comically-edited clip job of commentators praising the Illinois senator. As Obama entered the European portion of his overseas swing, the McCain team issued mock press passes featuring a beret-sporting Frenchman, joking that its own press pool was the "JV" squad.

Last week, a new McCain ad -- "Celeb" -- used footage of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears to peg Obama as "the biggest celebrity in the world." Video Watch Obama respond to the ad »

"Only celebrities like Barack Obama go to the gym three times a day, demand MET-RX chocolate roasted-peanut protein bars and bottles of a hard-to-find organic brew -- Black Forest Berry Honest Tea -- and worry about the price of arugula," joked McCain campaign manager Rick Davis.

On Friday, the McCain campaign took their tongue-in-cheek talking points to a new level in a Web clip called "The One."

"It shall be known that in 2008 the world will be blessed. They will call him 'The One,' " says the announcer in the one-minute Web spot. "And he has anointed himself. Ready to carry the burden of The One. He can do no wrong. Can you see the light?"

The laugh-laced attacks have offered Democrats an unappealing set of options: Respond to the substance of the criticism and look humorless -- or play along, and risk permanent laughingstock status.

Last week the Obama campaign opted for the howitzers, releasing a statement blasting the McCain team's "litany of false, negative attacks" that included rueful criticism of the strategy from Republican luminaries like Pat Buchanan and veteran consultant Ed Rollins.

Lighten up, responded Republicans. There is an "important role for humor in all campaigns," said senior McCain adviser Nicolle Wallace. "I think all of us would slit our wrists if it wasn't for that."

Why now?

"It's August, and in August it's harder to get attention from the electorate -- and the issues, while they're important, often take a back seat to people's personal schedules," said campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds. The McCain team "made a cognizant decision" to spice up their approach, said Bounds. Video Watch analysts weigh in on McCain's new approach »

In the short term, at least, the approach was successful. An analysis by the Pew Foundation's Project for Excellence in Journalism, released this week, found McCain had pulled even with Obama in volume of press coverage. And after running four or five points behind Obama for a month, a Gallup daily tracking poll at the end of last week showed he had pulled even with Obama, at 44 percent.

But by Wednesday, despite the continued media frenzy generated by the ads and the lingering fallout, Obama had again pulled ahead in the same Gallup poll. Why?

It may be because the art of the subtle put-down is as difficult to master in politics as it is in life, analysts say -- nobody wants to sit next to the angry guy on the subway, let alone grant him a four-year lease on the Oval Office.

And McCain's renowned penchant for off-putting jabs -- his joke about bombing Iran, his off-color comment about Chelsea Clinton's parentage, his steady stream of sarcastic, occasionally off-message campaign trail asides -- makes it tough for the campaign to distance the man from this style of message.

Those who live by the snark can perish by the punch line.

"The world has changed," McCain's former Senate colleague, Bob Kerrey, told Politico last month, when asked about the Arizona senator's occasionally hard-edged humor. "It's a lot harder to tell jokes than it used to be."

The strategy's possible pitfalls are already on display.

At the beginning of the week, the McCain campaign pounced on a statement by Obama that offshore oil drilling wouldn't be necessary if drivers made sure their tires were properly inflated. Gleeful GOP staffers passed out tire gauges bearing the words "Obama's Energy Plan."

But within a day or so after the tools made their trail debut, McCain himself agreed that properly inflated tires would help save Americans at the pump, though not as much as Obama had suggested.


Former McCain senior adviser John Weaver -- who exited the campaign last year amid turmoil -- cast aside his usual interview reticence last week, telling the Atlantic magazine that he believed the campaign's embrace of mockery as a tactic "diminishes John McCain," and that the "Celeb" ad was "childish" and "reduces McCain on the stage."

"For McCain's sake, this tomfoolery needs to stop," Weaver said.

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