Men of Action: Obama Sinks 3-Pointers as McCain Hits the Ballpark

Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate who frequents gyms along the campaign trail and seems able to sink basketball 3-pointers at will, is vacationing near his childhood home in Hawaii, where his skills once earned him the hoops nickname "Barry O'Bomber."

Maybe he'll take advantage of the leisure time to dazzle more crowds with his basketball skills or other physical feats.

"I'm going to go bodysurfing at an undisclosed location," Obama joked as he arrived in Honolulu Friday.

But while Obama's away, his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, might play, too. He could take in another baseball game, as he did recently at Yankee Stadium, or practice his professed passion for hiking around his Arizona home.

For as long as there have been presidential campaigns, candidates and presidents have sought to portray themselves as rugged, athletic men or women of action. Some jogged. Some played golf. Some parlayed earlier sports associations into political careers. And some touted physical exploits on the battlefield.

"As far as I can tell, Obama would be our first basketball-playing president," said Richard Waterman, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, who wrote about presidential image-making in "The Image-Is-Everything Presidency: Dilemmas in American Leadership."

Some speculate that Obama, 47, may be trying to project a Kennedyesque youthfulness through his athletic displays, and perhaps trying to create a contrast with McCain, 71, who would be the oldest president ever elected to a first term.

But as Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., learned during the 2004 campaign for president, athletic abilities don't always give candidates an edge. They can have a downside, too.

After news cameras caught Kerry windsurfing during an unguarded moment on vacation, his Republican foes used the images to argue in an ad that his positions changed with the wind.

Even as McCain hobnobs with sports figures like cyclist Lance Armstrong and New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi, his campaign has taken shots at Obama's athletic image. A recent ad showed Obama sinking a 3-point shot with soldiers in Kuwait, while noting, "He made time to go to the gym but canceled a visit with wounded troops."

Obama also caught flak after rolling gutter balls at a bowling alley this spring. Some analysts believe it might have doomed him in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary.

At the time, John Sayle Watterson, who teaches sports history at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., and wrote "The Games Presidents Play: Sports and the American Presidency," told reporters who asked that he didn't believe Obama's bowling failure would amount to much.

"I said that everybody ... at some time in their careers has thrown a gutter ball," Watterson told "As it turned out, maybe I was wrong. He lost the [primary] election and, really, the electorate was not impressed that he had gone into a bowling alley and tried to be one of them. ... He was out of his environment."

Experts interviewed for this story wondered if even Obama's vaunted basketball skills could come back to haunt him. Perhaps they could play into racial stereotypes or undercut efforts to paint the youthful candidate as presidential.

"Too much basketball would overwhelm the electorate, would detract from his gravitas," Watterson said. "So I wouldn't expect him to be in too many pickup games, at least with the photographers around."

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