Barack Obama has launched a sustained and sharply negative advertising campaign against his Republican opponent John McCain, who has vaulted into the lead, according to an opinion poll released yesterday.
The first ever black presidential nominee has repeatedly promised that he would transcend the bickering of traditional politics. Trying to keep that pledge, but also the competitive edge, Mr Obama is now running an uplifting national advertising campaign while delivering fierce attacks on his opponent at the local level in key swing states.
The aggressive fightback comes after Republican underdog McCain opened up a five-point lead, according to a Zogby/Reuters poll published yesterday, completely overturning the seven point lead Mr Obama had in July.
Mr McCain now leads Mr Obama among likely voters by 46 per cent to 41 per cent. The poll found that voters believe Mr McCain would be a stronger manager of America's declining economy, even though he admits to knowing little about economic issues.
That is a worrying reversal for the Obama campaign and follows unrelenting attacks by Republicans on his lack of wartime experience, his opposition to oil drilling offshore, and accusations that he is a "talker" rather than a "doer".
The Illinois Senator built his campaign on a promise to transcend the bitter divisions of American politics and is maintaining this high-minded approach in prime-time adverts across the country. But in cities such as Philadelphia, Des Moines and Tampa, where undecided voters remain sceptical about Mr Obama after a tough primary season, he has gone on the offensive.
Without any media fanfare, his campaign has rolled out a series of attack ads in the states that will be pivotal in the 4 November election, seeking to paint Mr McCain as an elitist who is disconnected from the country's suffering working class voters.
Mr Obama's tone reflects growing anxieties within the Democratic Party that their candidate has been damaged by a fusillade of attacks by Mr McCain in recent weeks while he has been holidaying in Hawaii. The political spotlight abruptly turned to Mr McCain, who used Russia's invasion of Georgia to bolster his foreign policy credentials.
The latest poll was taken last week, while Mr Obama was on holiday. "There is no doubt the campaign to discredit Obama is paying off for McCain right now," the pollster John Zogby said.
Mr Obama's negative campaigning has yet to turn personal, although his activists have urged him to do just that. They want his campaign to draw voters' attention to Mr McCain's "flip-flopping" on issues such as immigration, tax cuts for the wealthy, and torture. As the columnist Eric Alterman put it in The Nation: "He conducted an adulterous affair before leaving his disabled wife, enjoys eight residences across the country, as well as corporate jets."
Instead, Mr Obama's aggressive ads have contrasted a statement Mr McCain made about the economy: "We have had a pretty good, prosperous time with low unemployment", with ordinary people talking about their financial woes: "The prices of gas are up; the prices of milk are up," says one. Mr McCain made his remarks last January before the US economy went into a nosedive and has since runs ads saying: "We're worse off than we were four years ago."
Some media watchdogs, such as FactCheck.org, part of the Annenberg Public Policy Centre at the University of Pennsylvania, have branded the adverts misleading. "We certainly for a while were finding a lot more in McCain's ads to complain about," said centre director Brooks Jackson. "That pattern certainly has shifted a bit."
Mr Obama has three polling organisations working for him, all of which are picking up voters' concerns about the economy. In response, he has blanketed at least five cities and large urban areas with attacks on Mr McCain.
"If you can go quietly negative, that's what he's done; I think the perception is that he's still running the positive campaign," Evan Tracey, of TNS Media Intelligence, told The New York Times. "It's a pretty smart, high-low, good cop/bad cop strategy."
Mr Obama is also attacking his opponent's grasp of economics with a mock book, Economics, by John McCain: "Support George Bush 95 per cent of the time; keep spending $10bn (£5.4bn) a month for the war in Iraq."
Last Sunday, the Obama campaign spent nearly $400,000 running the two negative ads more than 600 times. Some two thirds of all his commercials on that day were negative, compared with 85 per cent of Mr McCain's. Mr Obama spent $48m on ads in June and July compared with $37m by Mr McCain.
Obama's ad attack
The ad opens with footage of Senator John McCain declaring: "I don't believe we're headed into a recession." Then comes a series of ordinary Americans. "I think we're absolutely in a recession," says Ed Rutherford, from Ohio. "I sometimes struggle just to get essentials, you know, the milk, the bread," adds Lauren Ahlersmeyer, of Indiana. Now it's back to Mr McCain: "There's been great progress economically," he says. Cut to Stuart Morrison, of Kentucky: "The economy is in a rut." Mr McCain: "We have had a pretty good, prosperous time." Kelly Robertson, from Indiana, disagrees: "It is the bleakest of times." So does Chris Fisher, from Ohio: "I'm really worried." The screen fades to black, for the Obama campaign to ask: "How can John McCain fix the economy, when he doesn't think it's broken?"
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