McCain Fights for Media Time

With His Democratic Challenger on a Press-Getting World Tour, GOP Contender Launched Scrappy Counterattack

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WASHINGTON (AdAge.com) -- Barack Obama owned the media battleground last week, but rival John McCain managed to hold his own.

As the Democratic presidential candidate embarked on a world tour that placed him in front oaf dramatic vistas in historical cities, he was followed by anchors from the three broadcast networks as well as a who's who of print reporters. The result: millions of dollars' worth of free media.

Obama
Photo: David Maung

Barack Obama's trip abroad was gaffe-free but also played into perceptions that the media is biased.

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"It's not even close," said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "Obama's 'Magical Mystery Tour' won the media game easily. It's not just that he's more popular abroad than the Beatles. It's also that he looked presidential and made no obvious gaffes, thus reducing the legitimate doubts about his lack of foreign-policy experience."

According to Nick Ragone, director of client development for Ketchum and author of three books on presidential history, "Obama has done a masterful job at orchestrating his trip overseas. This has been the most successful overseas trip by a candidate running for office. To absolutely own the media cycle for a week. ... They were very effective at orchestrating it, the timing of it and having the three networks go with them while McCain is sitting here basically with nothing to do."

'Net wash'
But John McCain busied himself with a scrappy counterattack, relying on TV ads, online videos and PR moves designed to keep him in the news cycle. Aside from leaking rumors that he might select a running mate by the end of the week, Mr. McCain scheduled a photo op on an offshore oil rig (canceled due to weather) and, while Mr. Obama spoke in Germany, Mr. McCain spoke at a German restaurant in Ohio.

In the end, said Mr. Ragone, "it's a net wash."

"Obama clearly won on coverage, volume and looking presidential." But the tradeoff, he said, was that the trip may have played into one of McCain's strongest points: the surge in Iraq. "It sort of underscored the basic tenet of what McCain has been saying, which is the surge is working. So in a way it's going to make Obama's job a little more difficult. Even Katie Couric said to Obama that the surge is working, so how does Obama rail against something that is working?"

The trip also played into perceptions that the media is biased. Mr. McCain's website offered a "media in love" video questioning whether the media was not just slanted toward his rival but had gone off the deep end. Said Mr. Sabato: "They unloaded on the referees, the news media, and got their attention. It may not change MSNBC's behavior, but the other networks made an effort to be more balanced in their coverage during the week. And the attack on the media was very popular with the GOP base, which has had its doubts about McCain."

But Mr. Sabato had a reminder for politics and media watchers: "It's July, and nothing that happens in July matters all that much by November."
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