On Twitter, campaigns dog each other with insults

WASHINGTON, April 18 Wed Apr 18, 2012 2:03pm EDT

WASHINGTON, April 18 (Reuters) - It's either an amusing way to follow the 2012 presidential campaign, or the death rattle for meaningful political discourse in America.

Either way, top campaign aides to Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney have taken to Twitter with relish, in daily verbal battles that underscore how negative - and silly - the campaign could be during the next six-plus months.

The battles on the social media website, generally sparked by a "tweet" from either Obama adviser David Axelrod or Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, create what amount to several news cycles in a single day, with waves of messages - each of them less than 140 characters.

The campaigns' latest dive into pettiness came late Tuesday, as Fehrnstrom and Axelrod jousted over the issue of ... dogs.

Fehrnstrom clearly had been waiting for a chance to return zingers from Axelrod over Romney's much-publicized family trip to Canada in 1983, when Romney transported the family dog, Seamus, in a crate that was strapped to the top of the Romneys' car.

The episode, during which the dog lost control of his bowels, has been lampooned by Democrats who have portrayed Romney as an uncaring former corporate executive.

Axelrod mocked Romney's campaign by tweeting a photo of Obama in the presidential limousine with his dog, Bo.

"How loving owners transport their dogs," Axelrod wrote.

Fehrnstrom struck back late Tuesday after The Daily Caller, a conservative news website, reminded its audience that in his book "Dreams from My Father," Obama had described being fed dog meat when he was living in Indonesia between the ages of 6 and 10.

As The Daily Caller's post was making the rounds on Twitter, Fehrnstrom re-tweeted Axelrod's photo of Obama and Bo but added a new caption: "In hindsight, a chilling photo."

Meanwhile, waves of dog jokes (and fake dog meat recipes) lit up Twitter, in messages that were as crude as they were timely.

As trivial as it all might seem at a time when the United States faces continuing economic uncertainty at home and a war in Afghanistan, the campaign advisers also are quick to wrangle over budgets, taxes and other issues more likely to show up in an exit poll than dogs.

Axelrod and Fehrnstrom told Reuters on Wednesday that Twitter can quickly communicate a campaign's message - and keep it fun.

"Can it be silly and cheap at times? Absolutely," Axelrod said. "Can it also be a useful tool? Yes. I think it is both a way to quickly communicate to the media, and a way to share information and ideas more broadly."

Fehrnstrom said the new medium is a valuable tool.

"Twitter is another channel of communication," Fehrnstrom said. "It wasn't around for the last election but it is now, and we intend to open and make use of all the different channels. A lot of reporters use it, it's popular with people age 30 or above, not so much with the younger crowd, but it's a place where stories can incubate before breaking out into the mainstream."

So will any of this chatter actually influence voters' decisions in November?

Probably not, said Larry Berman, a political analyst and dean of the Honors College at Georgia State University.

"I pay no attention," Berman said. I "suspect this fascinates inside-Beltway folks, (but) it will have little impact or significance." (Editing by David Lindsey and Eric Beech)

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