Nothing is as fierce as guerrilla warfare, where anything goes. Video warfare, with its manipulated images and half-truths posing as facts, is fiercest of all. The Geneva Convention does not apply.
The McCain campaign posted a video on YouTube.com over the weekend mildly mocking Barack Obama as a self-proclaimed messiah, as messiahs imitating the original necessarily are.
"Can you see the light?" asks the stentorian voice-over. "It shall be known that in 2008 the world will be blessed. They will call him 'the One' ... Barack Obama may be 'the One,' but is he ready to lead?" Or, the anonymous voice might have asked, "the One what?"
The Obama camp yelped, as if in pain, and cried foul. A spokesman dismissed the YouTube video as "juvenile," and promised, "childish" attack or not, that the "messiah" will continue "talking about his plan to jump-start our economy by giving working families $1,000 of emergency relief."
The messiah video followed by several days a video mocking Mr. Obama as a mere celebrity, full of sound bite and flurry signifying not very much, illustrated with fleeting images of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, two of the most famous airheads in Hollywood, where airheads were invented. Even Miss Hilton's mom chimed in, with the reassurance that her daughter isn't as dumb as everyone thinks she is.
The latest McCain salvo arrived just after a similar YouTube video that depicted Mr. Obama as a holy man if not exactly a messiah, with images of the candidate framed against the Cross, doves of peace fluttering above the grime of politics, and reverent photographs of the senator paying respects to the most important Jewish shrine in Jerusalem. This one had all the ruffles and flourishes of the videographer's trade, smooth and slick like other Obama videos and with the requisite tag, "Paid for by Obama for America." Effective stuff, and apparently the work of a clever counterfeiter. The Obama campaign quickly disavowed it, and whoever did it. There's no evidence that the McCain campaign had anything to do with it, either.
The irony is that these works of the videographer's art don't necessarily mock Mr. Obama. They're of a piece with the image that he himself has crafted over these past months, with his plummy pulpit eloquence and his portentous assertions that he's the one we've all been waiting for. Casting Barack Obama as who he has been saying he is is not likely to offend his glassy-eyed followers, and in fact might persuade even the atheists who find the left-most fringes of the Democratic Party so congenial that they're not as immune to the power of religious belief as they thought they were.
This craftsmanship, accompanied by the not-so-subtle campaign to put criticism of Mr. Obama as beyond the pale, for a time made dissent from the holy doctrine racist, immoral or at least impolite, because he was sent from heaven (or at least a more highly developed solar system). Nice people just wouldn't dissent. Mr. Obama himself said so, accusing the McCain camp of trying to scare voters with the reminder that the messiah from the South Side of Chicago doesn't look like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and other national greats whose likenesses decorate the currency. Mr. Obama could have been talking about beards, stiff necks and hairstyles, but everybody took it as talking about color. He finally had to take it back, revising his accusation of "racism" to mere "cynicism."
The weekend call-and-response, as certain preachers might describe it, has transformed the campaign. John McCain is no longer the tea-party Republican, Barack Obama no longer the haughty holy man. Mr. McCain picked up nine points in Gallup's accounting in this skirmish to call the race dead even, and on Monday Rasmussen Reports said that counting "leaners," Mr. McCain has moved ahead (by a point) for the first time.
Polls fluctuate like a teenager's whims, and a one-point lead in August, without context, is meaningless. But the polls are telling Barack Obama that black or not he's going to have to slug it out like everybody else who wants to be president. "Politics," as Mr. Dooley famously said, "ain't beanbag."