Turning on a Dime -- Has McCain's "Celebobama" TV Attack Ad Knocked the Obama Campaign Juggernaut Off-Course?

08/22/2008 03:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Many years from now, when strategists look back at Republican John McCain's celebrity "attack ad" against his Democratic rival Barrack Obama -- and see it as a pivotal moment in this historic presidential race, everyone will probably exclaim, "You've got to be kidding!"

Just one week after the controversial ad hit the airwaves, the latest Gallup Poll and a Rasmussen Report daily Presidential Tracking Poll show McCain tied with Obama and even beating him under some circumstances -- a surprising turn of events considering that prior to the ad, Obama was leading McCain in almost every poll nationwide.

Meanwhile, the media gleefully continues to cover the negative fall-out from the ad, even as they decry the politicians' descent into the tried-and-true tradition of slinging mud at their opponents. Ratings have never been better. Late night talk shows finally have something to talk about. The back-and-forth, tit-for-tat, bitch-slapping, nail-scratching snide comments coming from both camps would fit right in with the backstage drama of Flavor of Love.

Ironically, only Paris Hilton's mother had the correct response to the ad. She rightfully noted that it was inappropriate for a politician of McCain's stature to be publicly insulting a private citizen, and using his considerable political clout to do so on national television. It would have been another thing if Paris was actively campaigning for Obama, which she is not.

Where's the Beef?
Yet my beef is not with the media -- it is simply being true to its frivolous self; or John McCain, who is following in the time-honored footsteps of greater men before him who have stooped to mud-slinging, name calling, and school-yard taunting of their political rivals to bring them down. My beef is with Obama himself, who seems to have come unhinged -- just as he appeared poised to secure his position as the official frontrunner in the presidential race.

Obama used to be a study in coolness, gentle wit, intelligence, and eloquent composure -- unique qualities in a politician -- actually, in any human being. Yet his responses so far -- from himself and his surrogate spokespeople -- have been surprisingly petty and ultimately detrimental to his campaign.

A Moment in Time
There was an infinitesimal moment just before McCain's "Celebobama" ad hit the airwaves when even Republicans held their breath, hedging their comments and ready to bail out should the ad backfire. The media, which can normally be counted on to exploit political missteps, also seemed ready to laugh off the old man. They were prepared to label it an act of desperation -- the kiss of death in any campaign.

But Obama chose to respond with sarcasm rather than indignation -- and so opened the floodgates that led to the worse possible insult that his campaign could ever suffer: not being taken seriously. Obama's oft-quoted sound bite, and his initial response to McCain, " that the best you can come up with?" sounded too dismissive and, alas!, arrogant. It actually played right into the ad's contention that he was beginning to act like a celebrity instead of acting like a president.

Obama and his surrogate spokespeople continued to compound the problem by maintaining a sarcastic, dismissive, even haughty tone toward McCain. Ironically, they started to play McCain's game, intentionally misconstruing his comments and poking fun at them. The media couldn't have asked for a better catfight.

In recent days, Obama seems to have recognized the errors of his ways and has begun to "attack" his rival with substance rather that sarcasm. He's offering solutions for the economy and the oil crisis -- rather idealistic ones, but you've got to give the man credit for trying. Yet, the damage he has already done to himself may be irreversible. For example, in Obama's latest plan for lessening the United State's dependence on foreign oil, what the media headlines observe is that he has reversed his position on key issues. Whether the plan is a good one or not is hardly addressed.

Meanwhile, the McCain camp hands out car tire pressure gauges to journalists. They explain it is in response to a comment by Obama that Americans can do their share to bring oil prices down by checking that their tires are properly inflated.

And the world laughs.