In an election year that was supposed to be about the economy, here we are talking about eating dogs and cookies from 7-Eleven.
Not to mention Ted Nugent, dressage horses and car elevators.
Presidential politics has always had a flair for quirky detours, like John Edwards's $400 haircut and Michael Dukakis's army helmet. But the 2012 campaigns are pushing the sideshows so far onto the main stage that they've emerged into a quasi-campaign of their own, running alongside the serious debate about taxes, spending and jobs.
Who, for instance, would think that at a time of staggering unemployment, the White House would be fielding questions about Barack Obama eating dog meat when he was a child in Indonesia? That's a storyline that the Romney campaign has been pushing after a report in the Daily Caller, a right-wing news outlet, quoted a passage from Obama's book in which he talks about eating "tough" canine meat.
The revelation was retaliation against Democrats, who called Mitt Romney inhumane for putting his family's dog on the top of his car on a drive to Canada.
Eric "Etch A Sketch" Fehrnstrom, a Romney adviser, used the Daily Caller report to say in a Twitter message that a picture of Obama and his dog Bo was "in hindsight, a chilling photo" — an image posted in January by Obama adviser David Axelrod, who captioned it with a barely veiled reference to Romney's dog Seamus: "How loving owners transport their dogs."
John McCain linked to a picture of his son's bulldog on Twitter and said, "I'm sorry, Mr. President, he's not on the menu!" Rush Limbaugh said on his radio show that the dog-eating story makes him "extremely uncomfortable" but that "it's got to be discussed."
And yesterday, White House press secretary Jay Carney had to answer a question about it. He said Obama was six or seven and that "making a big deal out of it sounds like somebody who's trying to get out of the doghouse on something."
Even Newt Gingrich, whose campaign once made an ad about Seamus, said the dog stuff is "utterly stupid." Newt Gingrich!
"The political people think that there's something to be gained by that," said Harvey Rosen, the chairman in 2005 of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. "I totally understand why it's happening, and I'm not shocked."
In case you're wondering, the dog days have had little to nothing to do with what voters apparently say is the issue most important to them: the economy.
To be clear, the candidates have talked about that, too. Obama has been making the rounds talking about his "Buffett rule" that would raise taxes on the rich. Romney said this week that nearly nothing Obama has done has created jobs. Both of them have emphasized jobs while on the stump in a handful of swing states.
"Right now, we have two competing visions of our future, and the choice could not be clearer," Obama said at a community college in Ohio.
"If you want to know where his vision leads, open your eyes, because we've been living it for the last three years," Romney countered.
In case you were busy opening your eyes to Realer News, Romney inadvertently irked a baked goods shop near a campaign stop this week by remarking that its cookies appeared as if they came from 7-Eleven. The bakery labeled the mishap "CookieGate" and says its business has boomed since.
Democrats seized on Romney's diss like a Dalmatian on a chew toy. In the Pittsburgh area they staged a "cookie taste test" in a market square, an event circulated by the party's national committee. Anita Pace, a sales associate at the insulted bakery, said the local team wanted to buy cookies with the Obama logo, but upon learning that the request would take a week, settled for five dozen assorted treats for $27.
The Democratic National Committee tried to keep the story on the dessert debacle by circulating a story written on a liberal blog headlined, "Patrons Wonder If Mitt Romney Prefers His Cookies With Diamonds After He Snubs Local Bakery."
"This is just something that clearly has escalated beyond anyone's imagination," said John Walsh, the owner of the shop, Bethel Bakery. "Who would have ever thought that a tray of cookies would get this kind of response?"
Also getting an unusual amount of attention these days is Ted Nugent, a supporter of Gibson guitars and Mitt Romney, who told right-wingers at an NRA gathering recently that if Obama is reelected, he'll "either be dead or in jail." He also said the Obama administration is "wiping its ass with the Constitution" — a comment that the DNC determined stood alone as an issue .
Brad Woodhouse, the DNC's chief flack, immediately began a crusade against Nugent, trying to make the loose-cannon rocker as closely tied to Romney as Ann Romney is. In an email to reporters that was cheekily addressed to Fehrnstrom, the Romney adviser, Woodhouse wrote, "Hey Eric, what do you and your boss have to say about your surrogate making these comments?"
He followed that with four more emails — like "Romney and his Campaign Bragged About This Endorsement" and "DNC Chair Calls on Romney to Condemn Nugent."
That's not to say that the Romney campaign hasn't tried to make an Obama supporter more important than the candidate himself. The Boston operation has demonized the vulgar HBO comedian Bill Maher for using Nugent-like language about Romney's wife, saying she "has never gotten her a-- out of the house to work."
Firing off on Twitter, Fehrnstrom said that by not condemning Maher, Obama adviser David Axelrod "is signaling to supporters it's OK to keep up the attacks on Ann Romney."
So this is what the shadow 2012 campaign tastes like so far — tough dog meat, sarcastic cookies and barely relevant surrogates.
"They're like in an arms race," Rosen said. "I don't see how either team can unilaterally say, 'We're not going to do this anymore.' "
He added, "In equilibrium, it seems to be a wash."