NEW YORK // Big Bird is flying high in the 2012 presidential campaign.
President Barack Obama's campaign deployed the beloved Sesame Street icon in a new TV ad this week mocking Mitt Romney for saying he would defund public broadcasting if elected.
The foundation backing Sesame Street quickly disavowed the spot, and Mitt Romney dismissed it as unserious even though the Republican hopeful brought Big Bird into the national political conversation at last week's presidential debate.
Big Bird has been a big deal since Mr Romney, in outlining ways he would cut federal spending, said, "I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS," adding, "I like PBS, I love Big Bird."
Mr Romney's vow to defund public broadcasting has been a staple of his campaign appearances for months, but the nationally televised declaration last week in Denver - more than 67 million were watching - gave it a much broader audience than ever before.
Mr Romney's comment drew immediate reaction on social media, with users posting online photos of Big Bird appearing down on his luck or searching for work. Mock Big Birds have followed Mr Romney to campaign events, and the real Big Bird even made an appearance on Saturday Night Live last weekend.
"I feel like I'm famous now. I was walking down the street the other day and felt like everyone recognised me," Big Bird said.
The Sesame Street diss offered an opening to Mr Obama, who has faced strong backlash for his widely panned debate performance. At rallies and campaign appearances every day since the debate, he has used Mr Romney's remark and referenced other Sesame Street characters to mock his opponent in a way audiences find funny and relatable.
"He said he'd bring down our deficit by going after what has been the biggest driver of our debt and deficits over the last decade - public television, PBS," Mr Obama told people at a fund-raiser on Monday in San Francisco. "Elmo has been seen in a white Suburban. He's driving for the border. Oscar is hiding out in his trashcan. We're cracking down on them."
The satirical Obama campaign ad, set to air on national broadcast and cable stations, echoes that theme. The ad shows images of convicted financiers including Bernie Madoff and Enron's Ken Lay, and suggests Mr Romney believes Big Bird is responsible for their crimes.
"Big, yellow, a menace to our economy," the ad says. "Mitt Romney knows it's not Wall Street you have to worry about, it's Sesame Street."
While Mr Romney's comment drew criticism from PBS the day after the debate, the Sesame Workshop, which supports Sesame Street and other public broadcasting shows, demanded that Mr Obama's campaign remove the ad. "Sesame Workshop is a non-partisan, non-profit organisation and we do not endorse candidates or participate in political campaigns," the organisation said in a terse, two-sentence statement. "We have approved no campaign ads and, as is our general practice, have requested that the ad be taken down."
Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said the campaign was reviewing the organisation's concerns.