WASHINGTON — Someone’s halo has to slip and, when it does, the fall will be jarring and the crash unusually harsh. The national media have two anointed sons in Barack Obama and John McCain, each the repository of extraordinary favor and each now poised to become the presidential candidate who may well be chosen to be an object of unrelenting scorn.

That is how things tend to play out in modern presidential campaigns, from at least the dawn of the stage-managed Reagan era if not to the beginnings of John F. Kennedy’s Camelot. Who will be the next Al Gore, ridiculed and reviled for his intellectualism, his mannerisms, the color of his suits and the kiss bestowed upon his wife? Who is the next George W. Bush, the candidate of seemingly limited potential who somehow became imbued with what seemed like limitless appeal?

There is no impertinence in saying that Obama and McCain have both been media darlings. Obama has, by one empirical measure, gotten the most favorable press. A study released last October by the nonpartisan Project for Excellence in Journalism found that Obama, in the early stages of the primary campaign, was the clear recipient of the most positive coverage when compared to all presidential candidates, Democrat or Republican. “Taken together, nearly half (47 percent) of all stories focused on Obama were positive. That is roughly three times the percentage that were negative (16 percent) and exceeds the 38 percent of stories that were neutral in tone,” the study found.

During the same pre-primary period, McCain received uncharacteristically negative media attention. But most of the negative tone involved coverage of the financial and political difficulties the McCain campaign was going through at the time, according to Marion Just, a Wellesley College political science professor who was one of the study’s authors.

In fact, as the nomination contests draw to a close and Obama and McCain emerge as their respective parties’ most likely nominees, the media may find themselves in the position of doting parents forced to choose between favorites.

McCain’s courtship of the press began with his 2000 presidential run and it is based on his lavishing journalists with a commodity they covet: direct and almost unlimited access to the candidate. To be summoned to ride with McCain on his Straight Talk bus, as most reporters who spend time with the McCain campaign eventually are, is more of an honor than a duty. It is a chance not only to ask far-ranging questions directly of the Republican front-runner, but to momentarily be part of the inner circle, treated to banter and regaled with jokes. Add McCain’s biography as a Vietnam War prisoner and maverick among Republicans, and you have what has often seemed an irresistible mix for the media.

McCain, Just says, entered the 2008 campaign “with a great well” of journalistic good will. When she has asked journalists about the Arizona senator’s policy flip-flops, Just says they tend to discount them: “They say that he has integrity and it’s in his biography.”

Obama’s biography also has been the foundation of his positive press coverage, Just says. His background as a biracial American and his up-from-nothing personal story are historically powerful narratives. “One is the ‘American hero,’ ” Just says of McCain. “The other is, ‘America, the land of opportunity.’ ”

McCain has so far withstood the recent flap over his alleged favors for lobbyists, in part because The New York Times has come under fire for suggesting a romantic relationship with a lobbyist that it didn’t prove, and ironically, because of conservative disdain for what the right considers the flagship of liberal media bias. Obama has mostly managed to sail above his own flip-flops, some rhetorical inconsistency on the Iraq war and even his attacks on Hillary Clinton, a consistent part of his stump speech and campaign literature that journalists have heard and seen for months without paying much attention to them or questioning whether the tactics undercut Obama’s rhetoric against politics-as-usual.

Soon comes the showdown. There are gaping differences between McCain and Obama on policies ranging from Iraq to taxes to health care. Yet the sorry journalistic track record of recent presidential history suggests that these will fade for at least one candidate as matters of personality and style — and of course, the obsession with the horse race — take precedence.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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