McCain’s Web gap is showing

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The video lasts just more than three minutes. But that’s long enough to raise some nasty doubts about John McCain’s reputation as a straight talker.

There’s the Arizona senator arguing both sides of President Bush’s tax cuts. Here’s the supposed foreign policy wizard flubbing the simple facts about which terrorists are being trained in Iran. He’s even ducking his own admission that he needs to learn more about economics.

The newsreel of McCain lowlights has zoomed up the YouTube charts in the last week, with more than 1.5 million views. “John McCain’s YouTube Problem Just Became a Nightmare” is the video’s title, which might be dismissed as partisan hype but for one thing: It’s true.

The presumed Republican presidential nominee is taking a serious drubbing on YouTube, the most popular video-sharing service on the Internet and the virtual town square for millions of new young voters.

Search “John McCain” on YouTube and you’ll find the latest broadside, by Brave New Films of Culver City, and a lot more that’s not good for a candidate who’s built his reputation on constancy and authenticity.

There’s McCain stumbling over a debate question and, worse, his cringe-worthy answer wickedly paired with the hapless Miss Teen USA contestant who went blank on a query about Americans and geography.

There’s McCain seemingly on the verge of swallowing his tongue, so great is his discomfort when Ellen DeGeneres asks him why women like her shouldn’t be allowed to marry other women.

Six of the top 10 videos returned by a “John McCain” YouTube search Thursday pegged the 71-year-old as inconsistent, extreme, wooden or a combination of the three. (The one clearly favorable piece came from the McCain campaign and focused on his Navy service.)

Contrast that with a YouTube search of " Barack Obama.” It’s a swoon fest, with virtually all of the top entries featuring the Illinois senator at his eloquent, uplifting best. The videos range from the pop-icon worship of Scarlett Johansson and John Legend & Co. in “Yes We Can” (closing in on 13 million views) to a clip of the candidate’s speech on race after the explosion over the controversial sermons of his onetime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

That 37-minute political speech has logged 4.5 million views, a phenomenal number in a Web world more fixated on " American Idol” rejects and piano-playing cats.

With about five months to go before the general election, Obama will face his own uncomfortable video moments. Elsewhere in the fractured media universe, say AM talk radio, he’ll feel the heat.

But that doesn’t mean Republicans aren’t worried about the YouTube imbalance.

“This is another example of the generation gap that the Republicans are facing. And that gap is morphing into a chasm,” said Frank Luntz, a veteran GOP pollster. Yes, many of the young video viewers are already committed to Obama, but watching and even making the short films has turned the merely amused into the deeply committed.

“You activate them and engage them in a way you haven’t before, up to and including on election day,” Luntz said. “I think this is a critical part of Obama’s appeal.”

Liberal filmmakers have become as aggressive in promoting their work as in making it. Witness Brave New Films, formed by entertainment industry veterans who have enough time and financial security to devote themselves to political activism. The outfit relies on an e-mail list of more than 400,000, aggressive outreach to social networking sites and a full-time blog liaison specialist to help promote the films.

The organization’s producer-director, Robert Greenwald, got a sense of how broad his reach had become when his 15-year-old son giddily reported that the latest anti-McCain piece had hit a chat room for the online video game Wonderful World of Warcraft.

“In his mind,” Greenwald said, “I could not have done anything better.”

Online film has lowered the price of entry to political discourse and pumped new life into an ossified communications universe.

That doesn’t mean it’s brought greater accuracy or fairness.

So videos will continue to portray Obama as a fellow traveler of Louis Farrakhan, even though the candidate has denounced the firebrand minister. And McCain will be accused a thousand times over of pining for a 100-year war in Iraq, when he actually said he could see keeping military bases for that long, but only in a stabilized country.

So how do McCain & Co. get into the YouTube game?

Woefully behind in support from young people, Hollywood luminaries and Web activists, it seems a little hopeless.

But the Republican standard-bearer might get himself a YouTube toehold by taking a page from Mike Huckabee.

The former Arkansas governor reached into his (admittedly shallow) pool of Hollywood supporters and fished out . . . Chuck Norris. The tough guy and the wisecracking pol teamed in an irony-drenched ad. (Huckabee staring earnestly from the screen: “My plan to secure the border? Two words: Chuck Norris.”) That one spot was a bigger hit (2 million views) than anything McCain has produced.

For similar results, it may be time for McCain to play his own, less-menacing Hollywood ace: Wilford Brimley.

Yes, it’s been years since the portly, walrus-mustachioed actor appeared in “Cocoon.” But he’s got those Quaker Oats ads and that stolid, old-man cool. And, yes, Brimley supports John McCain.

A few years ago, someone took a TV spot of Brimley hawking a diabetes test kit, set it to a dance groove and dredged up 736,000 viewers.

Now he’s got a presidential candidate to sell. How hard can this stuff be?

James Rainey will keep watch on how the media, old and new, cover the election. This is his first On the Media column.