In 1983, with his wife and five boys packed into a full station wagon for a holiday in Canada, Mitt Romney strapped a travel kennel to the roof of the car to carry the family dog, Seamus. It’s the sort of holiday routine many families joke about, but not much more – unless you happen to be running for the White House nearly three decades later.

Barack Obama even interrupted his speech at the White House correspondent’s dinner on Saturday with a spoof political attack ad, featuring Mr Romney striding off Airforce One with a dog kennel tied to the top of the aircraft.

“I know everybody is predicting a nasty election, and thankfully, we’ve all agreed that families are off-limits,” Mr Obama said. “Dogs, however, are apparently fair game.”

During the 12-hour drive, Seamus, an Irish setter, relieved himself over the car, to the consternation of the kids inside, prompting Mr Romney to pull over, hose the car and the dog down and continue on the journey.

Seamus’s gastric malfunction had a brief life in Mr Romney’s first tilt at the presidency in 2008 after it was dug up by a reporter from the Boston Globe and used alternatively to display his cruelty to animals, or his cool leadership in a crisis.

In recent weeks, the story has re-emerged and gone viral in a tug-of-war between Obama and Romney supporters. The “Dogs Against Romney” Facebook page (“Did you know Mitt Romney is listed on two national animal cruelty databases?”) was countered by a “Mutts for Mitt” movement.

An Obama supporter re-created the journey from the late Seamus’ perspective, with ear-piercing truck and traffic noise, and posted the video on YouTube.

Seamus even featured in Mitt Romney and his wife Ann’s first big interview on network television.

“The dog loved it,” Ann Romney told ABC’s Diane Sawyer. “He would see that crate and, you know, he would, like, go crazy because he was going with us on vacation. Once, he ate the turkey on the counter. I mean, he had the runs.”

Boy eats dog

The conservative Daily Caller soon unearthed the information giving the Republicans their own Seamus moment. It was from Mr Obama’s autobiography, recounting a snippet from his childhood in Indonesia.

“With Lolo [Obama’s Indonesian stepfather], I learnt how to eat small green chilli peppers raw with dinner (plenty of rice), and, away from the dinner table, I was introduced to dog meat (tough), snake meat (tougher), and roasted grasshopper (crunchy),” he wrote.

Mr Romney’s staff and surrogates finally had the opening they needed. Eric Fehrnstrom, a Romney adviser, picked up on an old picture of Mr Obama stroking the beloved White House dog, Bo. “In retrospect, a chilling photo,” he tweeted.

“If you want a friend in Washington, don’t eat him,” tweeted the National Review’s Jim Geraghty.

Seamus and his travails have now begun to permeate political speech more generally, the ultimate accolade in Washington. After Hilary Rosen, a Democratic operative and CNN commentator, ignited conservative fury by saying mother-of-five Ann Romney “had never worked a day in her life”, the Obama campaign brutally disavowed her comments. Roger Simon, the veteran political journalist, neatly summed up her harsh treatment at the hands of the Obama team. “They really tied her to the top of the family car,” he said.

2012: the prequel

Political Washington has always had its own language. People never just get in touch. They “reach out” and then “circle back” if you haven’t returned their calls. No one argues either. They always “push back”.

So Mr Romney’s speech this month near the spot where Barack Obama will accept his party’s nomination at August’s Democratic convention was labelled a “prebuttal”. Within hours, two local Democrats had announced they would stage an event just ahead of Mr Romney’s, calling it a “prebuttal to the prebuttal”.

“Prebuttals” are doubtless inspired by Hollywood prequels, films set in times earlier than the original even though they are made after them. Star Wars has three such “prequels”.

The system holds intriguing possibilities for the presidential campaign. Imagine if the Obama campaign had been able to pre-position a Hilary Rosen prebuttal ahead of her comments. Like Seamus, it wouldn’t have been so messy to clean up afterwards.

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