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Campaign-ad Box Scores

The sun came up this morning, which meant our presidential candidates dropped a pair of snarling new ads onto the web (if not a television screen near you). John McCain's ad, "Chicago Machine," links Barack Obama with a variety of unsavory hometown characters. Obama's spot hammers McCain for his views on health care. By one standard, they're both negative. But that leaves out the vast differences. In lieu of inside-baseball commentary on the latest ad-skirmish winners and losers, here's a quick disaggregation:

-Voice-Over Quality: McCain. Maybe Bill Hader's character on this weekend's Saturday Night Live freaked everyone out: Narrators for both ads sound disconcertingly earnest. But Obama's has an edge of apocalyptic gloom that sounds bogus; McCain's narrator's more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger timbre works better.

-Guilt by Association Factor: Obama. Yes, the whole point of McCain's ad is to associate his rival with the scary-looking Chicagoites who helped drive undecided voters into the exurbs of Indiana and Wisconsin. But Obama's ad, with its sneaky juxtaposition of a McCain/Bush picture with shots of corporate signage for Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and Fannie Mae is more effective--especially since it further links those people with the Republican's health-care plans.  (Though McCain does get extra points for using the word "godfather.")  

-Department of Pots and Kettles: Obama. McCain, a member of the Keating Five and the toast of a recent Ralph Reed fundraiser, is a fine one to talk about friends. The Obama ad, meanwhile, just whacks at his foe for having more extreme laissez-faire views than he does.

-Gratuitous Kitchen-Table Reference: Obama--who actually has a picture of a presumably middle-American couple looking worried while sitting at what may well be...a kitchen table. McCain's shot of a TV with images of Obama's dubious pals only implies kitchen-tablehood.

-Unflattering final Portrait of Rival: McCain. McCain's ad features a shot of Obama looking kind of pissed off--actually, not a bad look for someone Republicans accuse of being weak. But Obama's, a shot of McCain holding a mike with his eyes closed, just seems mean. Perhaps the desired effect will sink in subconsciously, but at the end of an otherwise non-indecent spot, it's the sort of thing that screams "nasty political attack" in a way that could undercut everything said in the previous 29 seconds.

-Relevant Connection to Big Issue: Obama. What keeps you up at night: A state ethics probe of Illinois State Senate President Emil Jones, or the idea of relying on Bear Stearns for your kid's asthma meds? Right.

-Connection to Major Campaign Theme: Obama. His ad offers yet another link--with policy substance, too--between McCain, Bush, and the status quo. McCain's, on the other hand, offers Obama's connection to the Chicago machine as proof that the Senator is unready to lead. To my mind, rolling with a supposedly dirty group of people demonstrates many bad things, but not a lack of leadership skill: A nerdy law professor who manages to corral the Daley organization seems more impressive versus Al Qaeda than a nerdy law professor who can't corral a bunch of Chicago sharpies.

--Michael Schaffer