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In presidential politics, a candidate’s children are off limits. In the 2012 campaign, pets are fair game. Two dogs to be exact: Bo and Seamus.
Bo is the Portuguese water dog and first-pet, with which President Barack Obama rides in his armored limousine to shop for bones and aboard Air Force One for family vacations in Hawaii. Seamus is the Irish setter who belonged to Mitt Romney’s family in the 1980s. He’s famous for being placed by the former Massachusetts governor in a crate on the family car’s roof for a 12-hour ride to Canada for a vacation.
The tale could hound Romney until November. Obama’s aides have used it as a character contrast between the president and his near-certain Republican Party general election opponent.
Now, independent political action committees are spreading the word about the Ontario-bound car ride. The latest, “DogPAC,” opened this week. The organization’s founder has set a fundraising goal of more than $1 million to blanket such swing states as Ohio and Virginia with ads, bumper stickers and T- shirts.
In a new age of micro-targeting messages to a splintered electorate, pet owners represent a growing prospective voting pool. The number of U.S. households that own a pet has increased 2.1 percent to its highest level of 73 million, according to a 2011-2012 national survey by the American Pet Products Association.
Dogs have played a significant role in presidential culture, helping to humanize the nation’s top executive for people by making him seem more like themselves or their neighbors. They also serve as best buds: former President Harry Truman, who had Feller, a cocker spaniel, stated: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”
George H.W. Bush’s English springer spaniel, Millie, was the first presidential pet to write a book. Richard Nixon had King Timahoe, an Irish setter. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had Fala, a Scottish terrier he defended against a Republican attack in the 1944 “Fala Speech,” saying: “These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or on my wife or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala.”
“It creates the picture of the family man who has a pet and is kind and gentle,” said Robert Dallek, a presidential historian. “The contrast being made is that Romney is a rather stiff-back, harsh character, and he made the dog ride on the roof of his car.”
Seamus became fodder during the primary fight when Romney’s former rival for the Republican nomination, Rick Santorum, claimed that Seamus’s treatment on the car trip raised “issues of character.”
“We need to look at all of those issues and make a determination as to whether that’s the kind of person you want to be president of the United States,” Santorum said in a March 18 interview on ABC’s “This Week.”
In the general election, timing also may not be Romney’s best friend -- National Dog Day falls on Aug. 26, the day before the opening of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida.
Bo, meanwhile, is featured on the White House Flickr photo feed roughly as many times as National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling and Chief of Staff Jacob Lew.
During a women’s forum at the White House last week, Obama joked that his “wingman Bo” is usually with him to help balance out his female-dominant household.
In a 17-minute campaign video released last month, Obama enhanced his pet credentials further when he went out of his way to reference Cairo, the Belgian Malinois from Seal Team Six involved in the raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
“It wasn’t until I knew that they were across the border, they were safe, everybody was accounted for including the dog,” Obama said, pausing with a smile, “that I allowed some satisfaction.”
Romney campaign officials dismissed the criticism, saying economic matters would trump all others.
“Gas prices are above $4 per gallon. Rising costs at the supermarket and at the doctor are causing deep economic unease for so many families,” said Kevin Madden, a campaign adviser. “And the Obama campaign wants to talk about a story involving the Romney family and their pet from 1983? Do they really?”
YouTube parodies of the 1983 car ride include “The Ballad of Mitt and Seamus” and the “Mutt Romney Blues.” A recent Google search for “Seamus the dog roof” brought up an ad to buy a dog t-shirt that says “Woof not Roof.”
The Obama campaign has been advertising its “Pet Lovers for Obama” group on select websites, and there’s a dedicated pet section for shoppers at the campaign store.
“It’s not just the dog story, it relates to other things about the man’s character or personality that allows it to resonate it so effectively,” Dallek said.
Stephanie Cutter, the deputy campaign manager, was given a “Dogs Against Romney” T-shirt -- made by a non-campaign affiliated group -- that sits on a table in her office. Chief strategist David Axelrod, in January, posted on Twitter a picture of Obama and Bo in the presidential limo with the caption, “How loving owners transport their dogs.”
Obama’s aides haven’t noted that the presidential pet is technically transported on taxpayer funded aircraft and vehicles.
According to the 2007 story in the Boston Globe, Romney built a windshield for the dog carrier to “make the ride more comfortable for the dog.” During the trip, Romney’s son “glimpsed the first sign of trouble” and called out “Gross!”
“A brown liquid was dripping down the back window, payback from an Irish setter who’d been riding on the roof in the wind for hours.” After turning into a service station, Romney “borrowed a hose, washed down Seamus and the car, then hopped back onto the highway. It was a tiny preview of a trait he would grow famous for in business: emotion-free crisis management,” the Boston Globe reported.
Seamus survived the trip and Romney has said he lived to a “ripe old age.”
The story resonated particularly for Ron Carver, 65, whose Tibetan terrier, Amber, passed away late last year. Carver was especially rabid over Romney’s decision to keep a hosed-down Seamus on the roof after the dog’s nervous accident.
Carver, a retiree who was a labor organizer for the Teamsters Union, has never donated to Obama’s campaigns. Yet, along with some of his own funds, he hopes to raise more than $1 million through DogPAC to advertise on cable channels in battleground states.
With his “Paws on the Pavement” campaign and a website called GoodDogBadRomney.com that went live this week, he’s also set a goal for recruiting more than one million people to put bumper stickers on their cars, featuring a cartoon logo of Seamus’s ride.
“I would take Amber up to Boston on a 10-hour trip at least once a year in my minivan,” Carver said. “But what we did was we put our luggage on the roof and my kids and the dog in the minivan.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Julianna Goldman in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
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