WOODBRIDGE, VA - It can’t be denied Joe the Plumber has ignited some serious infatuation among McCainiacs. The signs at today’s big McCain rally in Virginia worshipped the idea of Joe:

“Save Joe”
“Our Dad Is Joe”
“Joe the Homeowner”
“Phil the Bricklayer”
“Rose the Teacher”
“The Audacity of Joe’s Hope in the American Dream”

Looking out on the crimson-clad crowd – the campaign had asked supporters to wear red to telegraph Virginia’s true colors – it was striking how much Joe signs had replaced Sarah Palin signs, which until this week were the hottest must-have accessory at a McCain rally. After the convention, it was all about the “Pitbull With Lipstick” buttons, but today, “I Am Joe the Plumber” stickers had largely taken their place. I guess Joe the Plumber is the X-Box to Sarah Palin’s Furby.

Palin and Joe paraphernalia is so interchangeable because the two of them play the exact same role in the populist drama the McCain campaign wants to mount: the no-bullshit, regular American guy/gal who needs to be protected from the vicious elitists by other regular Americans. (Michelle wrote a great post getting into the Palin/Joe similarities in more detail, if you missed it.)

Unfortunately for McCain, it turned out that Palin was less appealing to regular Americans – who, I suppose, have bigger problems in their lives than the condescension of the New York Times – than to red-meat-cravers who feed on a sense of two-Americas resentment. I suspect this’ll be true of Joe, too. As much as he’s highlighting the content of Joe’s economic concerns, McCain is willingly allowing Joe to be turned into a character in the culture wars: “As Joe has now reminded us all, America didn't become the greatest nation on earth by giving our money to the government to ‘spread the wealth around,’” he sneered at the rally; in response, a detachment of supporters near the press riser turned towards the gathered representatives of the elitist liberal media and shouted anti-communist slogans like “Communists go home!”

Another reason the Joe fad shouldn’t be too reassuring to Republicans? The continuing popularity of secondary figures within the McCain campaign reflects how little excitement its central figure inspires. Can you imagine how depressing it would be if people showed up to Obama rallies carrying 2-to-1 Biden signs and shouting about, oh, say, Sierra the Barista? I mean, seriously, Republicans are less interested in their war-hero nominee than in an anonymous plumber?

--Eve Fairbanks