NEW YORK — So let's get all the puns out of the way, shall we? It's the issue with legs — four of them. The doggone thing won't go away. Has the presidential race just gone to the dogs? Or are we simply in those dog days between the primary season and the start of the general election?
Whatever it is, the political Mommy Wars seem to have given way this week, at least temporarily, to the Doggy Wars, with an effort by supporters of both Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama to gain points with the Doggy Vote. That's dog owners, not the dogs themselves — at least for now.
But let's talk about those dog owners. We asked a bunch of them across the country what they thought. And many — though not all — were annoyed by the whole affair, calling it a silly and pointless distraction.
"I hate seeing things detract like this from the real issues," said Barry Leimkuehler, 53, of Phoenix. "Both sides are guilty of it. I guess until the debates start, they're just filling up time."
Leimkuehler is a supporter of Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee, which gives us our segue. Because, to recap, it all starts with a story that has dogged Romney (sorry) for five years, that of Seamus the Irish setter and his unfortunate road trip to Canada.
Seamus, goes the anecdote, was strapped to the top of the family car in a crate for the entire 1983 trip from Boston to Canada, during which he developed gastric distress, which resulted in both car and dog having to be hosed off. Romney did so, and put the dog back up there.
The story came out in 2007 and has since been used by Romney's opponents to describe him as cold and uncaring. Dogs Against Romney, a group started by social media consultant Scott Crider, now boasts more than 50,000 friends on Facebook; Obama campaign staffers have a Facebook page called Pet Lovers for Obama. Campaign strategist David Axelrod in January tweeted a photo of his boss and dog Bo in a car — inside, of course — saying "How Loving Owners Transport Their Dogs."
It came up again this week when Romney and wife Ann were interviewed by Diane Sawyer on ABC. Ann Romney insisted the dog loved to travel that way, and had only gotten sick that one time. "He had the runs," she laughed, though the couple did not look totally amused.
Then Wednesday, a conservative blogger pointed out a passage in Obama's "Dreams From My Father" that mentions having been given dog meat when he was a child in Indonesia. That prompted a delighted outpouring on Twitter by amused Obama opponents, peppered with dog recipes. John McCain tweeted a photo of his son's dog, with the line "I'm sorry Mr. President, he's not on the menu."
A Romney spokesman revisited that nice picture of Obama and Bo, saying it was, in hindsight, "chilling." An Obama spokesman tweeted back decrying the attack on a small child. On Thursday it all reached the White House briefing room, with chief spokesman Jay Carney saying that making a big deal of the dog-meat episode "sounds like somebody who's trying to get out of the doghouse on something."
Puns aside, the episode didn't seem quite so humorous to many dog owners interviewed by The Associated Press. (And there WERE many; our Twitter request for dog owners to contact us led to some 200-plus emails, including lovely dog photos, in 20 minutes, not to mention countless phone calls — a testament to the passion of dog owners.)
"Really, both issues are stupid, given what we are wrestling with as a country," said Patricia Warne, a research scientist who lives in Rockland County, north of New York City, and owns four dogs — three border collies and a dachshund. Yet the Romney episode bothered her. "Given the money he has, couldn't he have found some other way to transport his family and the dog? I wouldn't put a dog up there any more than I would a kid."
Still, Warne said, she considered it more an organizational failing on Romney's part — "a lack of planning" — than a moral one. And since she is a solid Democrat, it hadn't affected her choice of candidate.
Not so Jennifer Mohr, who's still deciding whom to support. Mohr, of Hollywood, Fla., owns a company that makes candles for dogs. Though she voted for Obama last time, she said she was disappointed in some of his failed promises and was considering Romney — until she heard about the Seamus incident.
"As soon as he put the dog on the roof of the car, I bailed," she said. "I don't understand what that man was thinking. I can't get my head around it!"
Virtually everyone interviewed gave Obama a pass on the dog meat, calling it a cultural difference. That included Ron Friedman, a Romney supporter from Gurnee, Ill., proud owner of a Pomeranian shih tzu.
"He was a young kid," said Friedman, who works in the health care industry. "It was the practice in that country. I won't make this an issue when it's not."
Of Romney's Seamus trip, he said, "I understand how some people think this is over the top — no pun intended. But I live in a rural area. People here have their dogs out all year round. Now, if there were two dogs and one flew off ..."
Friedman added that he thinks the whole Seamus affair is a "cynical ploy" — as is the dog-meat issue. He wants to see more substance. "Is this the worst they have on Romney? At least attack him on the issues!"
Sherry Butler, another shih tzu owner who works in marketing in Phoenix, was horrified to hear of the Seamus anecdote, which she didn't know about beforehand. "Are you kidding me?" she asked. "I would never do that ever! My dog is like my son."
However, Butler, an independent who is still deciding whom to support, said she still thinks it doesn't bear on Romney's fitness to be president. "What it tells me about him is that as a dog lover, he doesn't feel the way I do," she said. "I won't disregard it. But it won't be the deciding factor."
Carol Bryant doesn't agree. The 43-year-old Democrat — and cocker spaniel owner — thinks the episode does reflect on Romney. "It says something about the character of a candidate," said Bryant, of Forty-Fort, Pa. "I'm mortified by it, and I do believe there's a place in the campaign for discussion of it."
To media critic Jeff Jarvis, the whole affair is a reflection of where we've come in political campaigns. "One blemish is an opportunity to bring somebody down," he said. "It's all distracting and silly, and it's dangerous when taken seriously."
Scott Crider says it is serious, though — especially for prized female voters. The founder of Dogs Against Romney says more than 60 percent of his Facebook "friends" are women. "They're saying, 'I can't support this guy,'" says Crider, who calls himself an independent and says he has had no contact with the Obama campaign.
Interestingly, one person who doesn't seem to take it too seriously is the president of PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
"As an individual, it irritates me when there is any talk of anything that doesn't settle on the core issues," said Ingrid Newkirk, stressing that she was speaking for herself. "And if we want to talk about treatment of animals in this country," she added, "there are far more serious issues to talk about."