Obama on the ropes

Sarah Palin is dancing like a butterfly, stinging like a bee

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Sen. Barack Obama, speaking in Norfolk, Va., Wednesday, got out his shovel and dug the hole he's in a little deeper.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio (jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1476).

The McCain campaign moved to "seize an innocent remark and take it out of context because they knew it's catnip for the news media," he said, thus guaranteeing the "innocent remark" and its fallout would dominate the news for a second day.

Speaking in Lebanon, Va., the day before, Mr. Obama said Sen. John McCain may claim he'll change Washington, but he's really just like President Bush.

"You can put lipstick on a pig," he said. "It's still a pig. You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change. It's still going to stink after eight years."

The AP's Nedra Pickler said the remark drew "shouts and raucous applause" from his audience, whose members were "clearly drawing a connection" to the joke Sarah Palin told in her acceptance speech, that the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull is lipstick. The McCain campaign demanded he apologize for the remark and rushed out a television ad criticizing him for making it.

Mr. Obama said Wednesday he meant no such thing. His profession of innocence would have been more persuasive if he'd attempted to disabuse his audience Tuesday of the notion he was referring to Ms. Palin, and if an Obama surrogate hadn't used remarkably similar language that day in referring to her.

Mr. McCain chose as his running mate "someone with zero experience in national government, zero experience in foreign affairs," Rep. Russ Carnahan said in his introduction of Sen. Joe Biden at an event in Missouri. "There is no way you can dress up that record, even with a lot of lipstick."

I'm inclined to take Mr. Obama at his word, mostly because it would be really stupid to say such a thing deliberately. But the remark comes on the heels of unprecedented personal invective directed at Ms. Palin and her family from Obama supporters, and it does sound like a campaign meme. The video of Mr. Obama's remarks is on YouTube. Watch it and judge for yourself.

Some conservatives think it unseemly for a Republican to complain about sexism. But they miss the genius of what the McCain campaign is doing. Whether their outrage was real or faux, the McCain campaign has Mr. Obama, looking rattled, talking about the Republican candidate for vice president instead of talking about issues that might win him votes. The GOP television ad about the lipstick remark was designed for an audience of one, and it worked. Mr. McCain is so far inside Mr. Obama's OODA loop that I almost feel sorry for the senator from Illinois.

The OODA loop is a concept coined by fighter ace John Boyd. It stands for Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action. You see something. You figure out what it means. You decide what you're going to do about it, and then you do it. The winner in a dogfight is the pilot who goes through the OODA loop faster.

Mr. Obama has been on the defensive ever since Sarah Palin's speech at the Republican National Convention. Candidates who are on the defensive rarely win elections. It's amazing to me that Mr. Obama spends so much time attacking her. He's running for president. She's running for vice president. When you punch below your weight card, you do not add to your stature.

It's hard to ignore Sarah Palin or the crowds she attracts. But Mr. Obama had better try. She's a first-rate candidate whose presence on the GOP ticket makes it harder for Mr. Obama to win. But personal attacks on Ms. Palin and her family just make his problem worse.

The McCain campaign is betting Mr. Obama's ego is so great and his skin so thin that he can't resist responding to the barbs Ms. Palin delivers with such a sweet smile. So far, they're winning the bet.

The bitter words Mr. Obama had for the news media in Norfolk on Wednesday suggest a campaign overcome by panic and confusion. And ingratitude, considering the way his friends in the press have stacked the deck on his behalf.

But Mr. Obama has a legitimate beef with the news media. Were it not for their vicious, baseless characterizations of Ms. Palin and her family, the audience for her speech would not have been comparable to his in the Barackopolis. Nor could she have delivered to Mr. McCain on the following night an even bigger audience than Mr. Obama attracted.

For Republicans, the irony is delicious.


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