The Note: Baby One More Time

When Britney and Paris were thrust into the campaign, it was not a happy day in Obamaland.

Which is not the same as suggesting that it was a banner day for Team McCain.

It was a day where Sen. John McCain's campaign -- maybe for the first time in the general election -- found a coherent argument to effectively push. (Though it might not have been the argument McCain himself wants/needs.)

It was a day that made Steve Schmidt's team whirl with Rove-like efficiency. (And made John Weaver stir with un-Rove-like alacrity.)

It was a day that may have forced Sen. Barack Obama into a rare unforced error. (Yet may have forced McCain into the box he's been avoiding.)

It was a day when a quote -- however mischaracterized -- placed an exclamation point on a narrative. (Maybe two narratives, actually.)

"The new McCain ad depicts Obama as a celebrity akin to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton -- pretty, pampered . . . not up for being president," ABC's Jake Tapper reported on "Good Morning America" Thursday. "Now Obama is casting McCain -- who already has a reputation for having a temper -- as negative and angry."

Humor is humor, but there are other ways to make the same points about inexperience/riskiness/otherness -- frames that haven't been fully constructed yet.

The ad marks a critical point of concession: McCain is saying that the campaign isn't really about him, after all. And if he keeps this up, winning the presidency will continue to be far more about tearing Obama down than building himself up.

"John McCain's campaign gave its clearest signal yet that its main focus right now isn't talking about the presumed Republican nominee,"Bob Drogin and Peter Nicholas write in the Los Angeles Times. "Instead, it is trying to shape the public image of Obama -- in this case, by comparing him to two celebrities who are widely mocked as lacking substance."

(Was it a necessary concession? Sure, the campaign has been waged on Obama's terms to date, but things are tight as ever in new polling in battleground states.)

How long since the McCain campaign could count on this? "In a concerted volley of television interviews, news releases and e-mail, campaign representatives attacked him on a wide range of issues, including tax policies and energy proposals," Jim Rutenberg reports in The New York Times. "The moves are the McCain campaign's most full-throttled effort to define Mr. Obama negatively, on its own terms, by creating a narrative intended to turn the public off to an opponent."

"McCain's strategy is to leverage the enthusiastic crowds and personal charisma that have created excitement around Obama's campaign and use this celebrity to raise questions about Obama's depth," Jill Zuckman writes in the Chicago Tribune. "Framing Obama this way also allows the McCain campaign to highlight what some view as Obama's presumptuousness and inability to relate to ordinary people."

"The McCain campaign, under the direction of its new leader, Steve Schmidt, has settled on a storyline that could last through the election," Time's Michael Scherer writes. "It is, at root, an experience argument, adjusted to undercut the enormous enthusiasm that Obama generates."

This is a contrast ad disguising (thinly) as mockery: "Barack the Bimbo," reads the New York Post headline.

"Do the American people really want to elect the biggest celebrity in the world?" top McCain strategist Steve Schmidt said on a conference call with reporters, per ABC's David Wright.

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