Just Who's Lived the Grand Life?

By: NATHAN RILEY | “Life in the spotlight must be grand, but for the rest of us times are tough,” is a recurring message in John McCain's advertisements.

Obama's ties to everyday Americans are questioned. His most exciting talent – appealing to our better nature – is mocked, twisted into the harsh indictment that he doesn't care about working people any more than Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, or others in the Hollywood elite do. The excitement the Illinois senator creates is turned against him. That is the essence of a political campaign – turning an opponent's strength into a weakness.

Even if you think the argument is preposterous, it is a real problem. Andrew Kohut, whose Pew Research polls are highly regarded, said, “The race is much closer than we would have guessed because all the advantages in this election are with the Democrats.”

It started with an ad called “Celeb,” comparing Barack Obama to Britney Spears, whose bizarre behavior during a child custody dispute included exposing her shaved vagina to paparazzi, and to Paris Hilton, who has a successful cosmetic business, but also achieved notoriety in a sex tape posted online and cried during a short stint in the Los Angles jail. Linking Obama to these celebs displayed political savvy; they have many fans who are Obama supporters, which prevents the Democrat from disowning them too bluntly and derisively. But among the millions who watch Fox News, they represent Hollywood folly. For many, the comparison is merely a ribald joke; for countless others, the ad damages Obama, likening him to mindless sluts who show their pussies in public.

Tom Daschle, the former Senate Majority Leader, conceded the ad “caused a momentary dip” in the polls. Mark McKinnon, a Republican media strategist, said the message was “Mr. McCain puts 'Country first,' while Mr. Obama puts 'Obama first.'” It's hard to imagine a greater slander against Obama, the Harvard-educated lawyer who spent years as an underpaid community organizer.

A slur like this tests a candidate's feistiness. Will he know how to fight back?

On Monday, Obama came back laughing with an ad reminding us that John McCain loves the spotlight. “As Washington embraced him, he hugged right back. A Washington celebrity playing the same old Washington games.” The ad was bathed in repeated images of McCain hugging George W. Bush.

The ad was proof that Obama won't be a Republican punching bag. In the last presidential election, John Kerry never really answered the Swift Boat ad impugning his war record and thereby snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. In 1988, Michael Dukakis couldn't demonstrate any recognizable emotion to a question about what he would do if his wife were raped and murdered. On the other hand, in one memorable moment in the Dukakis campaign, his running mate, Senator Lloyd Bentsen, showed his boss how to demonstrate leadership voters would appreciate. In a debate, Dan Quayle, Bentsen's Republican counterpart, compared his experience to that of President John F. Kennedy. Bentsen witheringly rebuked Quayle with the comment, “I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.” A flummoxed Dan Quayle mumbled a reply and became a national joke.

McCain is working to define Obama, and an Obama victory requires that he reverse the process.

Chris Weigant, who has a blog and is a featured writer on The Huffington Post, calls on Obama to draw sharp lines between his life and McCain's. Weigant believes McCain is the poster child for affirmative action for the rich. He got into the Naval Academy because his father was an admiral. He married a fabulously rich heiress to a Budweiser fortune. This quintessential American company was recently sold to a European competitor. How much money did this man, who claims to put his country first, make when his wife sold to foreign buyers?

Obama had to take out student loans to complete his education; McCain's children didn't.

Cindy McCain in a CNN interview said the only way to get around Arizona is in a small private plane. When her husband ran for Senate, she learned to fly: “It became my passion. I wound up loving it, and buying a plane.”

The McCains can more easily buy a plane than the rest of us can buy a car. Their financial disclosure forms show that Cindy's AmEx card has a debt between $100,000 and $250,000, and a child in the family owes between $15,000 and $50,000 on another credit card. How many homes do the McCains own? Will we see a commercial starting, “Life among the rich must be grand, but for the rest of us times are tough.”?

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