critics laid down the foundations of the strategy months ago: The Republican National Committee started the "Audacity Watch" back in April, and Karl Rove later fueled the attack by describing the first-term Illinois senator as "coolly arrogant."
It wasn't until the last week, however, that the narrative of Obama as a president-in-waiting - and perhaps getting impatient in that waiting - began reverberating beyond the e-mail inboxes of Washington operatives and journalists.
Perhaps one of the clearest indications emerged Tuesday from the world of late-night comedy, when David Letterman offered his "Top Ten Signs Barack Obama is Overconfident." The examples included Obama proposing to change the name of Oklahoma to "Oklobama," and measuring his head for Mount Rushmore.
"When Letterman is doing 'Top Ten' lists about something, it has officially entered the public consciousness," said Dan Schnur, a political analyst with the University of Southern California and the communications director in2000 campaign. "And it usually stays there for a long, long time."
Following a nine-day, eight-country tour that carried the ambition and stagecraft of a presidential state visit, Obama has found himself in an unusual position: the butt of jokes.
Jon Stewart teased that the presumptive Democratic nominee traveled to Israel to visit his birthplace at Bethlehem's Manger Square. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd amplified the McCain campaign's private nickname for Obama ("The One").
And the snickers about Obama's perceived smugness may have a very real political impact as McCain launched its most forceful effort yet to define him negatively. It released a TV ad Wednesday describing Obama as the "biggest celebrity in the world," comparable to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, stars who are famous for attitude rather than accomplishments. (
The harsher treatment from comedians and columnists - coupled with the shift by McCain from attacking on policy to character issues - underscores the fine line that Obama is walking between confident and cocky. Once at pains to present himself as presidential, Obama now faces criticism for doing it too well.
"I was puzzled by this notion that somehow what we were doing was in any way different from what Senator McCain or a lot of presidential candidates have done in the past," Obama said Sunday, speaking about his trip at a conference of minority journalists. "Now, I admit we did it really well. But that shouldn't be a strike against me."
Obama and his supporters dismissed the line of attack as the latest desperate missive from a foundering Republican campaign.
Bloggers at the Huffington Post launched a backlash to the backlash against Obama's overseas trip, arguing in part that he wouldn't face such criticism of acting premature if he were white. Separately, the Obama campaign pushed back hard at journalists who used a report, which detailed Obama's move to assemble a transition team, to describe him as presumptuous by pointing to an interview in which McCain had owned up to the same thing.
Some Democratic operatives described the narrative as a Beltway creation, the pastime of journalists looking to keep the presidential race competitive.
"Self-absorbed press speculation," concluded consultant Bob Shrum, the chief strategist during John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign. "Most Americans are not paying the slightest bit of attention to this."
Mark Mellman, a pollster for Kerry, said Obama acted the same when he was struggling last year against Clinton.
"The only people who are making him seem inevitable are the commentariat," Mellman said. "He seemed this confident and self possessed when he was down 30 pints to Hillary Clinton. He is a confident and self possessed person."
Republicans have long tried to turn his assuredness into a shortcoming. National party operatives began sending e-mails to reporters in the spring detailing some of Obama's bolder moves, including using a faux presidential seal at a policy roundtable. The RNC rolled the headlines onto one site, "Barack Obama Audacity Watch," that it unveiled Wednesday.
The McCain campaign piled on with its "Celeb" ad, which juxtaposed Obama's speech to 200,000 people in Berlin with photos of Spears and Hilton.
"Do the American people want to elect the world's biggest celebrity or do they want to elect an American hero?" asked Steve Schmidt, one of McCain's top aides, on a conference call.
They stayed personal later in the day when responding to Obama's suggestion at a Missouri town hall meeting that Republicans would use his unusual name and his race to paint him as a risky choice.
"This is a typically superfluous response from Barack Obama. Like most celebrities, he reacts to fair criticism with a mix of fussiness and hysteria," McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said.
By later Wednesday, the Obama campaign responded within hours to the "Celeb" ad with one of its own, accusing McCain of taking the "low road" and "practicing the politics of the past." (
Responding to questions from reporters about McCain's ad, Obama said: "I do notice that he doesn't seem to have anything to say very positive about himself."
The strategy has very real potential dangers for Team McCain. Obama's unmistakable charisma and his campaign's deft brand of stagecraft have created an often lopsided contrast with McCain's sometimes painful-to-watch public events. As presidents as diverse as Ronald Reagan and John Kennedy showed, Americans do like a touch of celebrity in their commander in chief; though not too much.
Obama's steely sense of self-confidence, even destiny, is also one of the traits his supporters like most and which could, as the fall campaign heats up, be one of the qualities that help him make the sale.
But the slippery slope for Obama is allowing a McCain campaign that is searching for a consistent theme with which to attack him to latch on to a way of making him seem alien to ordinary Americans. Douglas Schoen, a Democratic pollster, argued that Obama was not yet in a danger zone, but he needed to pay heed to the gathering storm.
"My sense is that all of those attacks individually are frankly not particularly potent, but taken together, they are creating a narrative about Obama that is not helpful," said Schoen, who worked on President Bill Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign. "It is a warning sign for Obama that he's got to get back on the trail and make the case that there is a real contrast."
By Carrie Budoff Brown