By Stephen Marks, Special To The Stiletto Blog

Everyone’s complaining about how lackluster John McCain’s campaign has been. Well, I’m here to shake things up with the launch of a new 527, pH for America, and our first ad, “The REAL Barack Obama,” that will have liberals whooping and hollering “Swiftboat!” and “Willie Horton.”

The “pH” in pH for America stands for “Political Hitman,” which is how I describe my 14 years as an opposition researcher – the polite Beltway euphemism for those who dig up dirt on political opponents – in my book “Confessions of a Political Hit Man.” This 527 was formed to create and disseminate ads to educate the American public about aspects of Obama’s career and character he has been careful to hide so as not to “distract” you from voting for him. The hard-hitting anti-Gore and anti-Kerry 527 ads I created in 2000 and 2004 were noted by Newsweek, The O’Reilly Factor, Hannity and Colmes, and scores of other major political programs, where I drove liberals crazy. 

And now I have a new ad that exposes Obama’s true feelings about religion with footage from his June 28, 2006 keynote address to liberal group “Call to Renewal” at its “Building a Covenant for a New America”conference in which he explains why it would be very difficult to use the bible to guide public policy. In his remarks, Obama insults Christians and Jews by mocking the Old Testament and the “Sermon on the Mount.” He also arrogantly chides Americans for not understanding the Bible, unlike himself, with these pearls of wisdom:  

Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount – a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let’s read our bibles. Folks haven’t been reading their bibles.   

If nothing else, this ad reveals flagrant hypocrisy and cynicism on Obama’s part – a self-described “committed Christian.” He cites the same “Sermon on the Mount” he ridiculed in his speech as his inspiration for supporting civil unions for gay couples two years later.  Can you believe this guy? He has no shame. 

One reason Obama set up a Web site to respond to “all future unfair attacks” is that he knows there’s some very serious dirt coming his way. Some of it is going to come from pH for America. In addition to the ad showing Obama’s derisive comments about the bible, we will also air follow-up ads regarding Obama’s ethically-challenged financial conflicts of interest and highlights of Obama’s voting record that will surprise his constituents and shock the rest of America.

Accentuating The Negative 

With McCain finally airing some hard-hitting ads over the past several days – “The One,” making sport of Obama’s Messiah Complex; “Celeb,” which tweaks the celebrity-driven media for treating Obama like a starlet; and “Pump,” which takes Obama to task for his unwillingness to reduce foreign oil dependence with a comprehensive energy policy – pundits and political strategists are all over the map about whether McCain should go negative and, as Dick Morris put it in a column “take Obama down,” or should maintain his Mr. Nice Guy image (“Mister Rogers,” as radio talk show host Tammy Bruce described him on “The O’Reilly Factor” last week).

Here’s a round-up of what I’ve been reading and hearing about the pros and cons of going negative – as well as whether various and sundry politicos think the ads worked:

† Bruce:  [On why McCain has held back until now] [W]e’re at war … and we need to know that we got a guy who’s going to be mean when he needs to be mean. 

† Thomas Edsall: For McCain, negative ads have by and large been poorly conceived and minimally effective. In 2000, his decision to go negative against George W. Bush was a crucial factor in McCain’s eventual defeat. 

† Todd Harris: [B]eing aggressive against Obama on questions of leadership and trust and risk are important, but at the same time I think they need to be very careful because McCain is not at his best when he is being overly partisan and negative.

† Morris: When is the McCain campaign going to get serious? It seems to be marking time with softball ads, more appropriate to the soundbites campaign media spokespeople exchange with one another than to strategic paid media hits. 

† Ed Rogers: John McCain’s celebrity ad was effective. …  Lee Atwater said the worst thing you can do in American politics is play to your negative stereotype. Well, Obama’s negative stereotype now includes the idea that he may be a little too glitzy. 

† Ed Rollins: An ad man’s dream. In addition to Obama being compared to the “silly girls,” you also heard he’s going to raise your taxes and make us more dependent on foreign oil. That’s the good news … The bad news is they may be diminishing their own great brand: “Straight Talker, John McCain!” 

† Dan Schnur: It wasn’t until the last weeks of the primary that Clinton and her campaign really took the gloves off on Obama, and as it happens it was too little, too late. … McCain’s campaign quickly decided not to wait as long as she did.

† Salena Zito: [T]he McCain campaign should set the agenda, stop reacting to what Obama does – and let McCain be the bigger guy. … McCain must get back to talking about reforming Washington and how that applies to average Americans and how he will lead the way. 

Here’s what I think:

Edsell is dead-on in his assessment that McCain royally blew the 2000 race when he went too negative in South Carolina after taking Bush apart in New Hampshire. McCain even ran an ad accusing Bush of being anti-Catholic, after his meeting with Bob Jones. The ad backfired badly, as Bush’s brother, Jeb, and his family are Roman Catholic.

But that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have gone negative against Bush. It’s just that he was so clumsy. McCain could have knocked Bush right out of the race in South Carolina had he brought up his 1976 DUI arrest. I surmise that McCain’s campaign either did not have the arrest record, or chose not to use the information for unknown reasons. If so, STUPID. After being crushed in New Hampshire, Bush could not have survived the publicizing of the DUI arrest in South Carolina, one of the most conservative states in the U.S. McCain could have won the White House.

You’ll recall that when the Gore campaign leaked the DUI arrest days before the General Election, Bush’s six point lead evaporated. And if the voters in southern Florida had been able to fill out their ballots correctly, that DUI arrest would have won the election for Gore. (By the way, had Bush leaked the DUI arrest himself after he clinched the nomination and well before the convention – expressing his heartfelt contrition and remorse, of course – he would have snatched this arrow from Gore’s quiver. Bush clearly gambled that no one would find out about the arrest, and he lost.)

As for McCain, it wasn’t that going negative did not work for him in South Carolina, it was that he went negative with the wrong issue. In Confessions of a Political  Hitman, I give numerous examples of how good “opposition research” wins races, while bad research backfires.

Having said that, McCain has no choice but to go negative against Obama – various polls indicate McCain is running an average of 6-8 points behind Obama, and after the post-convention “bounce” Obama will be 20 points ahead coming out of Denver. But it’s crucial that McCain focuses on the right issues. Polling and focus groups can inform his campaign about issues that have resonance with voters, issues about which voters are indifferent – and worst of all, issues that will create sympathy for his opponent.

As Zito points out, McCain himself need not go negative. Independent 527s like pH for America can effectively gut Obama without McCain getting his hands dirty.

In 2004, Bush and Kerry never said a bad word about each other – it was one of the most civil races I had witnessed in my lifetime – and the two seemed to genuinely respect each other. But it didn’t matter. The independent 527 “Swiftboat” ads destroyed Kerry. Coming out of his convention with a slight lead, Kerry got no bounce because the Swiftboat ads hit him where he thought he was bulletproof: He served in Vietnam while Bush did not, which made him more qualified to be Commander-in-Chief.

The 527 Swiftboat ads were the deciding factor that turned swing voters against Kerry and allowed Bush to eke out a victory. I predict this election will also be very close, and that 527 ads will make the difference.    

About Stephen Marks:  Former Republican “oppo researcher” Stephen Marks is the author of the eye-opening “Confessions of a Political Hit Man” (available in bookstores and via Amazon.com), which predicted the Trinity United Church of Christ, “headed by a race-baiting radical,” would become a campaign issue at least a year before the rest of us ever heard of Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Marks has been interviewed about how and why negative campaigning works on CNN, FOX News, NPR, and more than 50 other TV and radio programs, and hosts a talk radio show on KFNX in Phoenix, AZ. Between now and Election Day, he will be periodically contributing his unique insight and analysis on the 2008 presidential campaign. An opposition researcher for 14 years, he is in a singular position to spotlight the controversies that can stick to – and distract – Barack Obama.

Note: The Stiletto writes about politics and other stuff at The Stiletto Blog, chosen an Official Honoree in the Political Blogs category by the judges of the 12th Annual Webby Awards (the Oscars of the online universe) along with CNN Political Ticker, Swampland (Time magazine) and The Caucus (The New York Times).

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