Kevin Frisch: Making popularity unpopular

Kevin Frisch

When I first heard the phrase, “going ugly early,” I assumed it had something to do with insensitive men and singles bars.

I was half right.

The term does, indeed, describe a posture adopted by insensitive men; insensitive Republican men. It is a short-hand description of  presidential hopeful John McCain’s campaign strategy.

While he pledged this spring to run a campaign that would engage his opponent in “an argument among friends,” McCain has since replaced friendly arguments with unfriendly smears.

Last month, he ran a television ad in which the announcer intoned, “(Barack Obama) made time to go to the gym, but canceled a visit with wounded troops. Seems the Pentagon wouldn’t allow him to bring cameras.” The accompanying footage showed the Democratic presidential nominee playing basketball. But as several bloggers and their readers noticed, the tape was from a visit Obama made to an American military base in Kuwait. While shooting hoops, he was surrounded by troops (who were edited out).

Ugly, but it didn’t quite have the overarching theme the campaign needed.

That theme seems to have been inspired by Obama’s successful mid-summer trip overseas, where he was greeted warmly by heads of state and cheered enthusiastically by throngs in public. Since then, McCain has been campaigning like the schoolyard tough who just can’t stand — can’t stand — how much everyone likes the class president.

McCain refers tauntingly in speeches, for example, to the estimated 200,000 who turned out to hear Obama speak in Berlin: “As you may know, not long ago, a couple hundred thousands Berliners made a lot of noise for my opponent,” he said at a campaign event this month at a motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D. “I’ll take the roar of 50,000 Harleys any day.” Nyah, nyah, Barack.

McCain’s TV adds mock his opponent’s success in snide, sophomoric terms: Over footage of Obama celebrating having clinched the nomination, a voice says, “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow, and our planet began to heal.” You think you’re so great, Barack.

But it is Obama’s popularity that reduces McCain & Co. to political apoplexy. They have become fixated on it. In fact, in a move that’s awfully nervy — or, potentially, just plain awful — they’ve decided to make Obama’s popularity a chief campaign issue. They’re just substituting the word “popularity” with “celebrity.”

Thus was born the Obama/Paris Hilton/Britney Spears TV ad. “He’s the biggest celebrity in the world,” says a female voice over images of the two blond tabloid regulars, neither known for intellectual depth. “But is he ready to lead?” (YouTube:

I suspect McCain would come right out and say, “running for president shouldn’t be a popularity contest,” except, in many ways, that’s very much what it is.

And hey — in a response video on YouTube (, Miss Hilton proves she can not only play along (I know, I know; there are other YouTube videos that attest to that), but she’s got a decent energy policy herself: “Limited offshore drilling with strict environmental oversight while creating tax incentives to get Detroit making hybrid and electric cars.” (It beats “drill now and save,” which is what one local congressman’s ads are preaching.)

Trying to turn a candidate’s biggest strength into a weakness isn’t bad political strategy. Indeed, McCain’s very party — OK, independent groups affiliated with his party, if you prefer — did just that in 2004. The Swift Boat Vets and POWs for Truth (sic) attacked Sen. John Kerry’s record as a decorated Vietnam combat veteran — a strategy as hubristic as it was eventually successful, considering the stateside service of the Republican candidate, President Bush, in the Texas and Arkansas Air National Guards was relatively cushy. Kerry played into their hands by not taking the assertions seriously until too late. Obama’s camp says it has learned from Kerry’s misstep.

At least, four years ago, the Republican Party tried to maintain a patina of distance from the Swift Boat political group. This time around, the TV ads end with McCain stating his name and his approval.

Attacking Obama’s popularity is a calculated risk. After all, you can’t denigrate someone for being popular without acknowledging he’s, well, popular. Still, depending on how Obama responds, the move may pay off for McCain.

Such political Hail Mary’s are not unheard of in presidential campaigns. You just seldom see them until late in the fourth quarter.

Messenger managing editor Kevin Frisch’s column, Funny Thing ..., appears each week in the Sunday Messenger. Contact him at (585) 394-0770/Ext. 257 or by e-mail at