How’d he do it? By running ads about … media coverage of Obama!

For the first time since this general election campaign began in early June, Republican John McCain attracted virtually as much media attention as his Democratic rival last week.

Barack Obama was a significant or dominant factor in 81% of the campaign stories compared with 78% for McCain, according to PEJ’s Campaign Coverage Index for July 28-Aug. 3. Not only was that a high water for McCain in the general election season (his previous best was 62% from June 30-July 6). The virtual dead heat in the race for exposure between the two candidates also marked the first time his weekly coverage had even been within 10 percentage points of Obama’s total. Indeed, in the eight weeks since early June when the general election contest began, 79% of the stories have significantly featured Obama, compared with 55% for his Republican rival…

In some ways, the media’s soul searching over its own role, and the resulting spike upward in coverage of McCain, were perhaps predictable. This had happened before, back during the primaries between Obama and Hillary Clinton. The week of Feb. 25-March 2, after Clinton complained about a pro-Obama bias and cited a Saturday Night Live skit to make her point, the press spent considerable time examining the possibility it was being unfair. And it followed that the next week, Clinton generated more coverage than her Democratic rival, reversing a trend of several weeks when Obama had been the top newsmaker.

If the McCain camp was trying to force the press to recalibrate and rethink, in other words, there was reason to imagine it might have an effect.

Indeed. The only subject the press finds more fascinating than Obama is itself; to the extent McCain’s ad team was trying to leverage that narcissism to increase their coverage, they’re brilliant. Karl (formerly of PW), who passed along the link, speculates that the spike in airtime explains the sudden dip in Obama’s polls, which is probably true but worries me even so. The success of the ads will tempt McCain to continue to run as Not Obama and I think it’s exceedingly difficult for a “Not” candidate to win, even against an opponent who’s widely disliked. (Ask Rick Lazio.) Remember, arguably Obama’s biggest weakness is that he’s an unknown quantity, a fact recognized again just this morning by both David Brooks and Alex Castellanos and magnified by each new damaging flip-flop. The more McCain submerges his own brand in a Not Obama message, the more he becomes a de facto unknown quantity and the less disadvantageous Obama’s weakness becomes. If we arrive at November and the Maverick image has been reduced to “the guy who’s running against the other guy,” we’re cooked for sure. In fact, that’s probably why McCain’s polls haven’t risen much the past week even as Obama’s have sunk. Exit question: Is Team Maverick planning to rebuild their brand? Watch the new ad and see.