Barack Obama and his Democratic allies are intensifying their attacks on Sarah Palin, as her sustained and surprising central role in this race is upending Obama’s strategy and often overshadowing McCain.
Democratic Congressman Russ Carnahan on Tuesday – introducing Joe Biden at a campaign event – ripped into Palin’s record and punctuated it with this snarky jab. “There’s no way you can dress up that record, even with a lot of lipstick,” he said. Later in the day, Obama used a variation of the lipstick line, though he was clearly talking about the McCain-Palin reform rhetoric. "You can put lipstick on a pig," he said. "It's still a pig."
Former New York Mayor Ed Koch, as part of his endorsement of Obama, said Palin “scares the hell out of me.” And Obama hit Palin in nearly a dozen different press releases – one day after drawing laughs at a campaign stop by calling her a “moose shooter.”
It isn’t just Democratic officials who are fixated on Palin. Media outlets on the left – from Talking Points Memo to Huffington Post – are loaded with hard-hitting stories about Palin. McCain often seems like he’s playing second fiddle.
“On the stump, not a single word that comes out of her mouth – or not a single word that the McCain folks put in her mouth – is anything but a lie,” wrote TPM’s Josh Marshall. “I know that sounds like hyperbole. But just go down the list. None of them bear out.”
The Obama campaign is calculating that it must reckon with Palin and the big public boost she has provided McCain in the past week. When Palin was first named, the Obama staff attacked, then he pulled back. Now, reflecting the threat posed by Palin, Obama is taking the unusual route of attacking the opposition’s No. 2, a job that would more typically be left to Biden, who focused more on McCain and President Bush.
The new tone is not without risk for the Democratic ticket. It’s hard to take down an opponent without appearing overly or overtly partisan. It’s also unusual to appear so focused on your opponent’s running mate – and not the nominee himself.
But it is very unusual, if not unprecedented, for a vice presidential pick to dominate a campaign in a sustained manner the way Palin has. And there is good reason to believe it won’t end anytime soon.
Let’s start with the media’s obsession with her. She is a fascinating “first” for the media to dissect: a female Republican vice presidential nominee with celebrity appeal. She is only beginning a string of media interviews – and continues to draw crowds McCain never could. Expect a flood of coverage off her two day interview with ABC’s Charlie Gibson this week.
The nonpartisan Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found that between Sept. 1 and 7 Palin was a bigger presence in the news than McCain or Obama. She seems an even hotter topic online, with blogs, gossip sites and media sites exploding with Palin coverage – some of it pretty darn wacky.
No topic is sparking more traffic or reader comment than Palin stories on Politico’s site this past week. As of Tuesday afternoon, 11 of the 12 most-read stories on Huffington Post were about Palin.
The campaigns are obsessed with her, too. McCain extended his national tour with Palin in large part because of the massive attention she draws. A slew of new polls show McCain in the lead for the first time – and perhaps even more importantly, a swing away from Obama among white women. It is doubtful McCain’s convention speech is the reason he’s erasing the gender gap, at least temporarily.
Obama wants to focus on the economy, and often does. But it is clear from his tone and a string of press releases Tuesday that the Democratic nominee feels he mustreckon with the Palin surge.
Obama at a Tuesday news conference in Riverside, Ohio: "There's no doubt that, you know, the Republicans are excited, particularly the right wing of the Republican Party is excited by Senator -- or Governor Palin's choice. I think that has less to do with gender than it has to do with her ideological predispositions which are closely aligned to theirs."
The candidate and has campaign have pounced on Palin’s somewhat bogus claim that she opposed the famous “Bridge to Nowhere” spending project in an effort to discredit her. She initially voiced support for the project and later opposed it as governor as opposition to it grew.
Stephanie Cutter, Michelle Obama's chief of staff, told MSNBC on Tuesday: "The more we learn about her, the more these facts don't add up. We now learn that she's the queen of pork in Alaska."
The Obama campaign is carefully weighing its words – remembering well the backlash that followed his attacks on Hillary Clinton during the nomination fight. But it also knows it cannot sit back and allow Palin to define her political image.
"When you change directions it's usually because of the polls. Obama is probably getting pressure from supporters and campaign strategists that he can't let her popularity go answered," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. "Since people don't know so much about her they're using the opportunity to brand her and nick people's impressions of her."
Presidential politics is littered with vice presidential selections, from Thomas Eagleton in 1972 to Dan Quayle in 1988, having a negative effect on a campaign. But Palin’s capacity to dominate both the debate and political discourse of the campaign, while also helping to boost McCain’s prospect in the past week, is unique. And to an extent, Palin will test an old political axiom: voters vote on the top of the ticket.
Amie Parnes in Lebanon, Va., and David Paul Kuhn contributed to this report.