RACINE, Wis. — Is John McCain's attempt to use attack ads this week tying Barack Obama to Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Charlton Heston as Moses the "Swift boating" of Obama?
No, experts said Thursday; McCain's recent barrage of negative ads and charges isn't as vicious as the 2004 campaign against John Kerry. But the McCain effort, led by Karl Rove protege Steve Schmidt, has the same objective: to demonize a little-known presidential candidate.
"McCain is narrative-building," said Allan Louden, an associate professor of communication at Wake Forest University, in Winston-Salem, N.C. McCain is trying to plant the idea that the Democratic Illinois senator is simply an attention-craving crowd-pleaser.
It's a risky strategy, as McCain found when he came to this Wisconsin city Thursday for a town hall meeting. A young woman there told the Arizona senator that he's said he didn't want to engage in mudslinging.
"So it seems like, to Americans like me and other people, like you may have flip-flopped on what you had said earlier," she said. Reporters were unable to get her name.
McCain replied that he admired Obama, "but what we are talking about here is substance, not style." And, he added, "all I can say is that we're proud of that commercial."
Voter reaction to the new attack ad was mixed.
"To me, it hurt the campaign," said Dorothy Prechel, 68, a Franklin retiree. She voted for New York Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, but is now undecided.
Neil Patel, 34, an independent voter and McCain backer from nearby Antioch, Ill., was less concerned.
"It's a political campaign. It's just part of the process," he said.
McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, is using a time-honored advertising technique, television consultant Kenn Venit said. He advises clients that the key to getting attention is "frequency and reach." Think of the phone number for the Empire Today flooring company, he said. Few consciously memorize it, but the ad jingle repeating it is so ubiquitous that many people can recite it from memory.
McCain is trying to plant the same kind of seed.
Last Saturday, the McCain campaign released an ad criticizing Obama's decision July 24 not to visit U.S. troops at a German military hospital.
Tuesday, the Republican Party issued a Web video mocking Obama's appearance before 200,000 people in Berlin.
Wednesday, the campaign began airing the Spears-Hilton spot. A female announcer purrs, "He's the biggest celebrity in the world,'' as pictures of Spears and Hilton appear, almost as if they were part of the Berlin crowd listening to Obama
"But is he ready to lead?" the woman's voice continues. "With gas prices soaring, Obama says no to offshore drilling. And he says he'll raise taxes on electricity. Higher taxes, more foreign oil, that's the real Barack Obama."
Friday, McCain struck again with a Web video suggesting that Obama is "The One," a semi-religious figure sent to save the world. The spot included footage of Heston as Moses parting the Red Sea.
Obama loyalists saw echoes of Rove's uglier campaign tactics, as his campaign charged that McCain "is spending all of his time and the powerful platform he has on these sorts of juvenile antics."
Schmidt, a one-time deputy to Rove in the Bush White House, is running McCain's campaign.
Nicolle Wallace, a senior McCain campaign adviser, said the ad wasn't a low blow, mean-spirited or evidence of Rove-like campaigning but a "celebration" of Obama's celebrity and a way to force the Obama campaign to talk about issues.
"Until we made this (ad), we had a hard time starting a national discussion on his positions," she said. "If you can't call him a celebrity, what would you call him? The fuss (from Obama's camp) is unbecoming of a presidential campaign. Their response is all fussing and guffing of feet."
Obama fought back hours after McCain released his celebrity ad. Obama's 30-second TV spot quoted newspapers labeling different McCain claims untrue and accusing him of taking "the low road." It said that McCain was pursuing the "same old politics, same failed policies."
Raising doubts about presidential candidates often works, most notably in 2004. Almost exactly four years ago, a shadowy group of President Bush backers called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth began running spots accusing Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry of embellishing his Vietnam War record.
Kerry responded quickly, giving reporters documents illustrating why the charges were false, and McCain came to his defense, calling the ad "dishonest and dishonorable." But the ads kept running, Republican-leaning talk shows kept promoting them and by mid-August Kerry was on the defensive.
"This is an act and react business. Kerry's response at first was not emphatic enough," recalled Joseph Erwin, the president of a Greenville, S.C.-based advertising and marketing firm.
McCain himself was the victim of similar tactics in 2000. He and his wife, Cindy, have a daughter they'd adopted after finding her at Mother Teresa's orphanage in Bangladesh. In the weeks before that year's crucial South Carolina primary, voters got calls from people saying that they were pollsters and asking McCain backers whether they were more or less likely to vote for him if they knew he'd fathered an illegitimate black child.
Rick Davis, now a top McCain adviser, called it "the perfect smear campaign." McCain lost the primary to George W. Bush.
Tobe Berkovitz, the associate dean of the Boston University School of Communication, thinks that the McCain-Obama ad wars don't approach that venomous level.
"What you see so far is traditional negative presidential campaigning," he said. "If you start seeing Osama bin Laden's face morphing into Obama or someone runs an ad featuring his middle name, that's Swift-boating."
McCain faces several risks with his strategy. If voters find that Obama's image doesn't match the one McCain is peddling, they may reject him, a lesson Jimmy Carter learned in 1980 when he painted Ronald Reagan as dangerous and out of touch.
"In the end, Reagan didn't fit that image," recalled Louden, of Wake Forest. "That could happen again, if people hear Obama speak and say, 'He sounds reasonable.' ''
Some voters aren't happy with this turn of the campaign.
"I have a feeling it will get more negative on both sides," said Julie Cavey, 52, of Racine.
Retiree Prechel warned that the Republican Party had better be careful.
"It's mudslinging," she said, "which I thought he (McCain) wasn't going to do."
On the Web: