Wires

UPDATE 1-Democrats fret about Big Bird's star turn in Obama campaign

* Obama ad uses 'Sesame Street' character to mock Romney

* Makers of the TV show want the commercial pulled

* Romney criticizes president for not focusing on issues

(Adds background on Sesame Street; edits)

By Samuel P. Jacobs

WASHINGTON, Oct 10 (Reuters) - In 2008, singer will.i.amprovided Barack Obama's presidential campaign with music for itssignature anthem, "Yes We Can." On Tuesday, at a rally for Obamain Columbus, Ohio, the performer chose to play something new:the theme song for "Sesame Street."

For Obama's supporters, already dismayed by the president'shalting performance in last week's debate with Republican MittRomney, that change in tune is a new source for concern as theyfret that a children's TV show has become a new backdrop fortheir candidate's campaign.

In a moment of tightening polls and climbing anxiety forObama's supporters, the president's decision to grant Big Bird astarring role in his campaign this week has presented anotherreason to reach for the Alka-Seltzer.

After Romney named Big Bird as part of a promise to pullgovernment funding for public television, Obama's campaignreleased a caustic new ad mocking Romney for thinking thecharacter was a "big, yellow menace to our economy."

Since the debate, Obama has been piling on, joking aboutRomney's designs for the TV show at every campaign stop.

Conservatives have been crowing that the silly turn in thecampaign diminishes the president.

"President Obama tried to give the bird to Mitt Romney-butwound up laying an egg," the New York Post wrote Wednesday.

Liberals point out that it was Romney who started the BigBird mess. Still, the tactic may have led to a kind of rolereversal for Obama and Romney. Throughout the summer, theRepublican was criticized for lurching from one news cycle tothe next, introducing attack lines that seemed to detract fromhis central message that Obama had stunted economic growth.

Now Obama, some Democrats fear, is seeking to revive hiscampaign with too light a jolt. They worry the president lookssmall by enlisting the eight-foot (2.4-metre) costume bird inhis defense.

Romney's presidency would endanger more than a televisioncharacter - if a beloved one - they say, and Obama's "SesameStreet" jabs belittle that peril.

"I'm not sure I understand why he is doing it," said BillGalston, a former Bill Clinton adviser.

It got worse for the Democrats on Tuesday when the makers ofSesame Street asked them to pull the ad because they did notwant Big Bird associated with politics.

The long-running U.S. children's television series, whichfirst aired in 1969, uses a collection of puppets and costumedcharacters, puppeteer Jim Henson's Muppets, along with shortfilms, humor and animation to promote early childhood educationand creativity.

SEEKING THE AVIAN VOTE?

The more conspiratorial campaign watchers reckon maybe thepresident's team must know something Washington does not.

Perhaps, promising to save Big Bird is a winner among moms.A Pew Research Center survey released this week observed an18-point swing in Romney's favor among likely women voters overthe course of the last month.

Maybe the Obama folks think the only way to bandage the hurtcaused by Obama's weak debate performance is with laughter.

The winking ad with its knowing use of irony could be a playfor young voters, a nudge that says Obama is still the hippolitician they knocked on doors for in 2008.

In a cloudy week where Democrats have formed a search partyfor silver linings, some hope the Big Bird ad is an attack linethat merely hasn't reached its proper conclusion.

Before the campaign retires it, they hope Obama will linkRomney's enthusiasm for canning the "Sesame Street" characterswith a much larger statement about the former private equityexecutive's character.

Obama should talk about how Romney suggested PBS news hostJim Lehrer would lose his job too - and grinning while doing it,said Dick Harpootlian, Democratic party chair in South Carolina.

"There's nothing funny about firing anybody," saidHarpootlian. "Why do you smile when you say you are going tofire somebody?"

The Obama campaign has said Big Bird was added to thecampaign cast to shed doubt on Romney's seriousness as acandidate.

"When Mitt Romney was given the opportunity to lay out hisplans for bringing down the deficit, he gave the same answer hehas given dozens of times on the campaign trail, which was tocut funding for Big Bird," said Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

"If that doesn't point out the lack of seriousness with hisdeficit reduction plan, I am not sure what does. The ad is anopportunity to highlight that."

Befitting a campaign that has turned toward toddlertelevision, Romney's response has been, in effect, to say he isrubber and Obama glue.

"These are tough times with real serious issues," Romneysaid in Iowa Tuesday. "So you have to scratch your head when thepresident spends the last week talking about saving Big Bird."

(Editing By Alistair Bell; Editing by Todd Eastham and EricWalsh)

((Sam.Jacobs@thomsonreuters.com))

Keywords: USA CAMPAIGN/BIRD