Four weeks after he reorganised his team, and days after the worst campaign week in recent memory, John McCain seems to be landing a few small hits on Obama. They’re reactive and mildly negative, and they leave McCain himself exposed, but hits they are nevertheless.

First out of the box was an ad, featuring the usual crowd of political suspects — Obama, Britney, Paris … say what? Yes, the Republicans are comparing Barack to a Hollywood celebrity, with McCain as the real politican, come to save the day. It’s cheap, it’s petty, it’s a little whiny, and it’s been getting airplay across the news shows for the last two days.

This is standard procedure of course — produce something either nasty, or just gimmicky that the news networks can’t resist in their endless search for something other than policy to talk about, and get free media. McCain’s team is running the ad in 11 states, and it’s playing in 50.

The ad neatly dovetails with a growing perception that Obama is getting a little too cocky, with a few questionable remarks alluding to the possibility that he may just be the saviour of humanity. “We are the people of the world and this is our time,” he said in Berlin, which will remind some of the philosopher Hegel’s remark that history came to its ultimate synthesis when he, Hegel, assumed the chair of philosophy at the University of Berlin.

Obama also broke with standard campaign practice whereby, even when you’re 30 points ahead and your opponent is dying of Phelps disease and charged with dog molestation, your only response to “how do you think it’s going?” is to mumble out of the side of your mouth, about a hard-fought campaign, going to the wire, and being the underdog. Obama?

“Ah, I think we’re going pretty well,” he said.

He got the hat-trick by saying that his candidacy represented what the American dream was all about — by which he meant being the son of a Kenyan goatherder in backblocks of Hawaii etc etc, going all the way to the White House, but which sounded like, well I would refer back to our man Hegel again.

The celebrity ad has got a lot of GOP hacks tut-tutting, and some cavilling from the punditry, but at least it connected with a feel about Obama, and pushed it further. Previous efforts — like blaming Obama for rising gas prices — have been bad fumbles, capped off with a meeting with the Dalai Lama at which the berobed one insisted on holding McCain’s hand through the whole press conference.

By that time, watching McCain stumble was more painful than fun, you would think. But the spectacle of a 72-year-old former Navy pilot Republican holding hands with another man for 10 minutes was … well I’ve got my new screensaver. McCain’s face was a study in guilessness, in slo-mo going from stoic seriousness/joy of other cultures, to amusement at own predicament, to looking askance, to just wanting it to be over.

It looked like NBC’s new autumn sitcom, it looked like a much better movie than The Love Guru , it looked like the ad RSVP never used, it looked like anything but a political triumph. I swear by the end of it, everyone knew what McCain’s rolling eyes were saying: “why does this keep happening to me …”

So at least he’s out of the slump. But the “celebrity” ad, and another line of attack — that a vote for Obama would be a vote for Democrats controlling both houses of Congress and the White House.

That of course is the same strategy the Libs were using last year — it’s the same strategy anyone uses, when they’re up against the wall, because it involves conceding a likelihood of defeat, and asking people to vote, not for a positive programme, but for a simple division of power. But it usually comes out in the last weeks or days of the campaign, and by incumbents about to be chucked out. The GOP is producing it before the Convention because they can read the marginal states as well as any of us, and realise what a hole McCain is actually in.

Obama also had the perfect comeback, perfectly staged and ready to go — throwing off a remark as he was climbing on the campaign bus that he “didn’t pay much attention to McCain’s ads, but they all seem to be about me. Why don’t you ask McCain what he’s for?”, he said with amusement not bitterness.

Follow-up ads then replayed McCain’s “celebrity” ad and tut-tutted about “same old politics”. Team McCain would have known it was coming, but that doesn’t make it any less tough for them, since it marks the moment at which McCain ceases to be Mr Straight Talk maverick and becomes the old Washington hack.

People urging McCain to take the high road are living in lala land — with the visceral hatred for the Republicans around, McCain has to keep the attention off who he actually is, and stay on the potential terrors of what Obama might be.

As always we won’t know which of these strategies are good or bad until after the election — at which one will be retrospectively canonised as sheer genius, while the other will be revealed to have always been obviously inept. I get a headache just thinking about how I’d sell McCain, and to his credit, he hasn’t yet resorted to a Hillary-style “hardworking white people” line, though that may come. But the problem hitherto has not been the pummeling strategy, so much as the ineptitude of its execution.

But for my money, Obama’s campaign is shaping up to be one of the most flawlessly executed of recent times — setting the agenda, and rolling out the policies and the politics on its own timetable, giving McCain no choice but to hang on and try for a lucky kidney shot. Nevertheless, criticism that he’s only five points ahead is probably valid.

I mean it’s not as if he’s a black, left-liberal, half-Kenyan first term senator running in the middle of two distinct wars or nothing …

Peter Fray

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