May 17, 2012 -- intro: Forget the economy, the war in Afghanistan, health care and Social Security. When it comes to presidential campaigns, some of the stickiest stories have centered on the drama of dogs, birth certificates, purple hearts and racially-charged reverends.
Just this week, another Republican congressman called into question whether President Obama was born in America.
In June, two political satirists are set to release a 64-page book chronicling how Mitt Romney put his dog in a kennel on the roof of his car during a 12-hour road trip.
And today, The New York Times reported on a conservative super PAC's possible plans to dig up old attack lines featuring Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and Wright's controversial comments.
So while polls show that the economy is the No.1 issue on voters' minds this election, here's a look at the tantalizing sideshow stories that have instead captured the country's attention in this and so many other elections.
quicklist: 1 title: Rev. Jeremiah Wright text:President Obama's former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright splashed his way into the 2008 presidential campaign after incendiary remarks he made during his sermons were first reported by ABC News' Brian Ross.
Wright, who was Obama's pastor for 20 years, told his congregation, for example, that blacks should sing "God Damn America" instead of "God Bless America" because the country treats them as "less than human."
Obama eventually denounced the remarks, said he was "saddened" by his former pastor, and renounced his membership at Wright's church.
But when a proposal to reignite the Wright controversy through attack ads was leaked from a conservative super PAC Thursday, the issue of Obama's provocative pastor was flung back into the spotlight of the 2012 campaign.
Both the Romney and Obama campaigns quickly condemned the plans, with Romney's campaign manager releasing a statement this morning denouncing and "efforts on our side" to run ads of "character assassination."
quicklist: 2 title:Seamus Romney's Rooftop Ride text:More than two decades ago, Mitt Romney prepared his family for its yearly road trip from Boston to Ontario, Canada. His five sons hopped in the back seat of the station wagon, his wife rode shotgun, and the family's Irish setter, Seamus, was hoisted into a kennel buckled to the car's roof.
That last step enraged pet lovers, sparking a Dogs Against Romney advocacy group, a smattering of anti-Romney attack ads, a New Yorker magazine cover and stream of questions for the candidate. The story was first recounted by one of Romney's sons in a Boston Globe interview during Romney's 2007 presidential campaign, but has blown up during his 2012 campaign.
"The dog loved it," Romney's wife, Ann, told ABC News' Diane Sawyer in April. "It was, to me, a kinder thing to bring him along than to leave him in the kennel for two weeks."
Dogs Against Romney claims the story shows Romney's "meanness," a character flaw that voters can't connect with. Romney claims the story is a sideshow that distracts from the real issue of rebuilding the economy.
In January, President Obama's campaign tweeted a photo of the president and his dog Bo riding with him in a car, with the caption, "how loving owners transport their dogs."
In April, the Romney campaign accused Obama of eating dogs, pointing to a line in the president's book where he admitted to tasting dog meat as a child while living in Indonesia.
quicklist: 3 title: Birther Controversy text: If Seamus' rooftop ride seems to have nine lives in this election, then the theory that President Obama was not born in America is verging on immortal.
While President Obama released both his long-form birth certificate and his "certificate of live birth" more than a year ago, a Colorado congressman said at a campaign rally last week that he is still not convinced the president was born in America.
"I don't know whether Barack Obama was born in the United States of America," Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo. said Saturday, as Denver's News 9 first reported. "I don't know that, but I do know this: that in his heart he's not an American. He's just not an American."
After the audio of his comments were posted online and called out by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Coffman swiftly apologized.
"I misspoke and I apologize," the first-term congressman said in a statement. "I have confidence in President Obama's citizenship and legitimacy as president of the United States."
Despite both Democratic and Republican leaders' attempts to put the issue to rest, a whopping 45 percent of Republicans in a New York Times/CBS poll, conducted shortly before Obama released his long-form birth certificate last April, said they were sure Obama was born outside of the United States.
"Over the last two and a half years I have watched with bemusement, I've been puzzled at the degree to which this thing just kept on going," Obama said upon releasing the certificate in April 2011. "We've had every official in Hawaii, Democrat and Republican, every news outlet that has investigated this, confirm that, yes, in fact, I was born in Hawaii, Aug. 4, 1961, in Kapiolani Hospital."
quicklist: 4 title:John Kerry's Swift Boating text: These often-consuming political sideshows are by no means a recent phenomenon. Sen. John Kerry's 2004 presidential bid is the case in point.
As the 2004 presidential campaign took shape, so too did America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But it was not the post-9/11 conflicts that captured the spotlight in the race between then-President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. Instead a deep-pocketed conservative group launched a barrage of attacks calling into question Kerry's decorated military service in Vietnam.
Swift Vets and POWs for Truth, funded with $2 million from Texas energy tycoon T. Boone Pickens, charged that Kerry lied in order to receive the Silver Star and a Purple Heart. During his campaign, Kerry did not directly respond to the ads so as not to legitimize their widely-disproven claims.
But without a full rebuttal from Kerry, the swift boat claims overwhelmed his campaign and are often credited as contributors to Kerry's defeat.
The smear campaign was so effective it coined a new and lasting term in campaign politics: "swiftboating."