It’s one of the very symbols of the presidency — the ultimate accessory to the ultimate bully pulpit, seemingly trumpeting to all that the words being uttered actually matter.

So why, on the campaign trail, has the teleprompter instead become a symbol of ineptitude, mocked repeatedly by Republican candidates?

Picking up on a theme that has been rippling through GOP circles for two years, Republican presidential candidates are trying to use President Obama’s reliance on teleprompters to deflate one of his biggest strengths — his oratorical skill. If Obama can’t give a two-minute speech without a screen telling him what to say, the critique goes, it’s a sign that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about and can’t be trusted to do his job.

“Obama ruined the teleprompter for the rest of the politicians,” said Fred Davis, a media strategist who advised Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in his 2008 presidential run and, until this summer, Republican candidate and former ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr.

“If you use it now, you’re like Obama,” Davis said. “It’s a negative because it’s a sign of inauthenticity. It’s a sign that you can’t speak on your own two feet. It’s a sign that you have handlers behind you telling you what to say.”

Since its invention a half­century ago, the teleprompter has been used by presidents and presidential candidates, Republicans and Democrats alike, seeking precision and accuracy in their speeches. But this year, the Republican hopefuls are generally just winging it.

Michele Bachmann says she will never use a teleprompter and often proclaims that if she makes it to the White House, she’ll ban them. Businessman Herman Cain joked last week that he threw the teleprompter off his campaign bus to “get rid of some dead weight.” And when Mitt Romney wrapped up a town hall meeting in Florida this month, a woman approached him and observed: “You did all of this without a teleprompter. Good job!”

“You didn’t see the teleprompter?” Romney replied. “It’s in my watch, actually. I just look down.”

From a politician sometimes ridiculed as robotic that qualified as a joke.

But Romney and the other candidates do still roll out the teleprompters for certain occasions, such as when the former Massachusetts governor recently delivered a major speech on foreign affairs at the Citadel. And sometimes candidates can be seen looking down at notes.

When Obama launched his campaign in 2007, he used teleprompters. He frequently addressed audiences off the cuff but almost always delivered the big speeches of his campaign from teleprompters — at the time making him appear more presidential, if voters noticed at all.

But now, Obama’s speechmaking is constant fodder for conservative radio, cable news and Internet outlets. On Tuesday, after someone took a truck in Virginia containing some of the most symbolic objects of the presidency, including the lectern and seal, it was the teleprompter that the conservative Web site Drudge Report zeroed in on: “SPEECHLESS: OBAMA’S TELEPROMPTER STOLEN!”

No matter — the president had another one up and running for his stops in North Carolina and Virginia.

Almost every time the president delivers a speech or makes remarks, no matter how mundane or brief, he reads from a teleprompter. (Two of them, actually — twin glass panes that rise on narrow sticks at eye level, one to his left and the other to his right, projecting an electronic visual of the scrolling text of his prepared remarks.)

President George W. Bush used teleprompters, but usually only for important speeches, said Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary. “Ordinarily, when he would just go hit the hustings, he’d use notecards, little 5-by-8 cards,” Fleischer said. “That was his standard style.”

There are clear benefits to using teleprompters. Speakers can deliver speeches just as they and their brain trust envision them. And they allow them to appear to be talking eye to eye with their audiences.

There’s a practical rationale as well. Presidents often give multiple speeches a day, covering a variety of subjects — a far tougher feat to pull off without a teleprompter than a candidate’s delivery of the same speech a couple of times a day.

Teleprompters also protect a president whose every word is picked over, shielding him from inadvertently making a diplomatic faux pas.

“It’s not that Obama’s not smart enough to be able to give a really good speech from outlined notes,” said Doris Kearns Goodwin, a presidential historian who was a White House aide to Lyndon B. Johnson, one of the first presidents to use a teleprompter.

“It’s one thing for a presidential candidate to say something stupid and cable news goes through it for a couple days,” she said. “But if a president says something that is not what he meant to say, it could be an international situation.”

Still, Obama’s habitual use of teleprompters feeds a negative narrative that Republicans are pushing.

“It’s sort of a soft joke that the president needs a teleprompter because he doesn’t have a sound command of the issues and doesn’t know what he’s doing,” conservative strategist Greg Mueller said. “He’s still in job training.”

At the 2010 Conservative Political Action Conference, then-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty ripped into Obama, saying his promise of “the next era of hope and change” had become an era of “hope and change and teleprompters.”

A year later, however, when Pawlenty launched his campaign for president, he read from twin teleprompters.

So, too, did Romney when he launched his campaign a few weeks later on a New Hampshire farm. Since then, Romney has used teleprompters at least four times, usually when he has addressed large audiences.

But for most other speeches, Romney has spoken without them. When he rolled out his 59-point economic plan in Nevada last month, he held up a single page of hand-scribbled notes on a white legal pad. “I don’t have a teleprompter here,” he said.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry used teleprompters when he unveiled his energy agenda at a Pittsburgh area steel plant last week but does not use them in his stump speeches.

When Cain addressed a tea party rally in Bartlett, Tenn., last week, a man shouted midway through his speech, “Where’s your teleprompter?” The audience erupted in laughter, and the candidate said, jokingly: “The teleprompter fell off the bus on the way over here. We were moving too fast. We had to get rid of some dead weight, so we threw the teleprompter off the bus!”

Meanwhile, after Bachmann’s flawed experience with a teleprompter in January — the Minnesota congresswoman delivered her tea party response to Obama’s State of the Union address into the wrong camera — she said she has banned them. “I know you’re not used to seeing a president without teleprompters,” she told an Iowa rally this summer. “But I’m here to tell you that President O’Bach — President Bachmann will not have teleprompters in the White House.”

Then again, if Bachmann had been reading from a teleprompter perhaps she would not have flubbed her own name.

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Staff writer Sandhya Somashekhar
in Bartlett, Tenn., contributed to this report.