Watching Team McCain the past few weeks has been bewildering. On the one hand, it's been clear what they were doing -- desperately trying to make the campaign about anything but Republican politics. If they could distract people by having John McCain juggle with one hand and do a puppet show with the other, they would. Instead, they chose what was most convenient: to try terrifying the public into thinking Barack Obama might be an uppity Black Muslim Terrorist who's the Anti-Christ.
On the other hand, it's how they were trying this that so bizarre. Britney Spears? Paris Hilton? Moses? Acknowledging Obama's popularity??
Yes, yes, I know that John McCain told Diane Sawyer he really believed these charges -
and also that you had to have fun during a campaign. But either John McCain actually believes these charges or he's just joking. You can't have it both ways.
And while I do admire humor in politics, John McCain's record on telling jokes isn't all that swell. Quips about gorilla rape and killing all Iranians with cigarettes aren't the knee slappers he thinks. Maybe it would be best to just try for substance.
Which returns to being bewildered about what the "Straight Talkers" are doing with their strange ads and odd statements.
And then, it occurred to me.
This isn't only "focus on anything but Republican politics." This is also Karl Rove 101 -- assault all your opponent's strengths and try to make those strengths appear to be yours.
They did it with John Kerry -- flimflamming the public that this war hero didn't deserve his medals. While painting the man who presumably deserted the National Guard as the glorious military leader.
They did it with Al Gore -- flimflamming the public that this seriously-brilliant policy authority exaggerated everything. While painting the bumbler as a compassionate whiz.
Realizing that they're trying it again with Barack Obama makes all the bizarre ads and strange campaign pronouncements clear. There are reasons why it won't work this time -- more on that in a bit -- but it's important to understand what is being done.
It begins with Barack Obama's strengths.
He draws huge crowds. He's young and vibrant. He's overcome significant prejudices. And he represents an ennobling leap past America's tragic history with race. He's popular with college students. All things John McCain is not.
So, what has Team McCain specifically addressed these past few weeks?
To turn the massive crowds of Sen. Obama into a negative -- as opposed to the handful supporting Sen. McCain's appearances at dairy counters -- the McCain campaign suggests that celebrity status is emptiness, comparable to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. (Never mind that John McCain is a celebrity, too. Just less-attended.)
To turn Barack Obama's youth and vibrancy into a negative -- as opposed to the 72-year-old John McCain being the oldest nominee ever for president -- the McCain campaign blasts him making a remarkable basketball shot, rather than visiting troops. (Never mind that he made the basketball shot with the troops).
To turn into a negative the Obama campaign countering any racial attacks -- as opposed to McCain supporters dropping racial hints -- the McCain campaign charges Obama himself with having "played the race card" and "from the bottom of the deck." (Never mind that what Sen. Obama acknowledged was, in fact, what the Republicans were doing.)
To turn into a negative the very "Audacity of Hope" at the heart of Barack Obama's campaign, becoming the first black man nominated for president -- as opposed to John McCain's life of privilege -- the McCain campaign describes Sen. Obama as "arrogant," "presumptuous" and an "elitist," even starting an "Audacity Watch." (Never mind that in a recent poll, only 36% found Mr. Obama "arrogant" - compared to 33% for Mr. McCain. Never mind that John McCain has $100 million in assets and six houses.)
To turn Sen. Obama's strength with college voters into a negative -- as opposed to his 72-year-old opponent acknowledging he doesn't understand email -- John McCain has repeatedly charged that the young Obama is the one "Out of touch." (Never mind that he said this twice most recently at a high-end fundraiser at the ritzy Biltmore Hotel in swank Coral Gables, Florida!)
If all that sounds familiar, as the tactic of Karl Rove and George Bush, know that the man running the McCain campaign, Steve Schmidt, headed "Rapid Response" for George Bush's 2004 re-election. In every one of these cases, Team McCain has tried to turn an Obama strength into a negative.
And that, in short, is the method behind the recent McCain madness.
And it is mad. There is a major flaw this year.
The problem is that this time around, unlike 2000 and 2004, Barack Obama has already faced such bitter attacks during the primaries. And -- he won.
The problem for Team McCain is compounded by beginning their smears so profoundly early. Attacks for three months can't be sustained without John McCain himself becoming the person muddied. Further, voters don't even start focusing on such things until after Labor Day. By then, this will all be old news. By then, Barack Obama will be the official nominee. By then, the debates will be upon us -- where John McCain will be unable to smear without being responded directly to his face.
It all may play great to the base, but independents are likely aghast and cringing. Watching the Straight Talk Express keep derailing is never a pretty sight.
Follow Robert J. Elisberg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RobertElisberg