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Starting Gate: Celebrity Revisited

Everyone's had a lot of fun over the last couple of weeks with the whole "celebrity" theme coming out of John McCain's campaign. There's been a lot of gnashing of teeth over the appropriateness of the suggestion that Barack Obama is an empty suit of the celebrity culture and not a few questions about its effectiveness. And we've heard plenty about the hollowness of the debate at a time when voters seem to be concerned about more pressing issues.

At the same time, pundits and prognosticators of all stripes have been stumped at Obama's inability to break away from McCain – at least in the national polls. He appears to have just about every political advantage in the book. He's a historic figure representing a party whose traditional strengths line up well with voter concerns and he's running against a candidate whose party and president are near all-time lows in popularity. If there ever was a "change" election, this should be it.

So it might be time to ask whether there's something more to this "celebrity" business than just another publicity opportunity for Paris Hilton.

On the surface, the "celebrity" charge is a personal attack on Obama, coupling him with people universally recognized as being famous just for being famous. But there may be something more going on here. A new poll by the Pew Research Center showed that about half of respondents felt they had been hearing too much about Obama recently while about 38 percent said they had not heard enough about McCain.

And what is it that people have been hearing and seeing about Obama? Not in-depth policy positions, not ambitious programs and proposals on health care or the economy. That's not to say Obama hasn't talked plenty about those issues. But what voters have been exposed to mostly is Obama himself – gracing the cover of just about every magazine on the rack, controlled images of him shooting hoops with the troops, interviews with his family on entertainment shows, vague discussions about race and age that have little to do with what this election is really about.

Two thoughts arise here. Perhaps Obama's image is blocking out his message. Maybe because he is a historic, compelling figure who draws adoration and massive crowds in Germany, what he says is drowned out by those pictures. Or maybe Obama has moved too far, too fast toward the center to make his message stand out. Maybe his political skills have watered down his appeal.

The current debate over energy plans is a good example. For a week, the McCain campaign hit Obama over and over again on his opposition to opening up more off-shore domestic drilling. Part of Obama's response to an attack that appeared to be working was to pivot a bit and say he's not opposed to looking at some additional drilling as part of a more comprehensive approach -- a smart political shift perhaps, but one that blurs the differences between the candidates and allows the celebrity meme to survive.

In either case, it's worth asking whether the idea of Obama is outpacing the reality of his candidacy. Even that could be enough for the Democratic nominee to win in November, but for the moment, it appears voters are still looking for more than just the celebrity they've been exposed to recently.

Around The Track

  • McCain holds a town hall meeting in Ohio today while Barack Obama makes a stop in Minnesota before heading back to Chicago for meetings. Obama is slated to take a some time off in Hawaii starting this weekend.
  • After reports surfaced about unhappiness in the Clinton camp over relations between the two primary opponents and suggestions that Hillary Clinton may push to have her name placed in nomination at the convention, the Obama and Clinton camps issued a joint statement last night: "We are working together to make sure the fall campaign and the convention are a success. At the Democratic Convention, we will ensure that the voices of everyone who participated in this historic process are respected and our party will be fully unified heading into the November election."
  • Former Bush adviser Karl Rove gives his advice to McCain in his Wall Street Journal column: "In the coming weeks, he needs to lay out a bold domestic reform program. He gave a taste on energy, but with a few missteps. He should appear in front of manufacturing plants where jobs depend on affordable energy, small businesses affected by fuel prices, and farms hurt by skyrocketing fertilizer costs -- and not in front of oil rigs. He needs to describe the consequences of specific domestic policy decisions. He must explain how his proposals on energy, health care, jobs and education will make a difference for ordinary families."
  • The AP reports that most bars in the Twin Cities are not preparing for late nights during the GOP convention. "Few bars in the Twin Cities are paying the $2,500 fee to stay open until 4 a.m. during the Republican National Convention." The AP reports. "The St. Paul Pioneer Press reports that no establishments have asked St. Paul for a 4 a.m. license. In some cases, convention co-host city Minneapolis has dropped its fee to $100."