President Obama's re-election campaign, which suddenly found itself trailing Republican Mitt Romney, turned Tuesday to an unlikely savior: Big Bird.

Obama released a tongue-in-cheek ad accusing Romney of threatening the Sesame Street icon while overlooking the wrongdoing of Wall Street. The spot, to run during comedy shows, was based on Romney's claim in the first presidential debate that he would cut federal funding to public broadcasting.

Democrats defended the president, saying he was merely showcasing a lighter side in a campaign that has grown brutally negative. But Romney called Obama "desperate." Republicans charged he was trying to distract voters from his record. And Sesame Street asked the president to take down the ad.

"These are tough times, with real serious issues. So you have to scratch your head when the president spends the last week talking about Big Bird," Romney said at a campaign event in Iowa. "I actually think we have to have a president who talks about saving the American people."

The criticism didn't deter Obama from talking about Sesame Street in Ohio.

"[F]or all you moms and kids out there, don't worry, somebody's finally getting tough on Big Bird," Obama said at Ohio State University. "Elmo's running for the border, Oscar's hiding out in a trash can."

Republicans pointed out that Obama mentioned Big Bird more than a dozen times since last week's debate but didn't once bring up the recent terrorist attacks in Libya that killed four Americans, including the ambassador.

And even some Democrats questioned why the president, so eager to regroup and get back on the offensive following a poor debate performance, would put the spotlight back on that forum.

"It smacks of stupidity," a former Obama campaign adviser told The Washington Examiner. "The polls are tightening. Romney is surging. And this is your message? Ugh."

Big Bird himself wasn't too thrilled about his newfound political exposure. Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind the children's television show, asked the Obama campaign to take down the ad. Big Bird is not partisan, they said.

Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the ad was a response to a "strong grassroots outcry over the attacks on Big Bird." When asked about the request to remove the ad, she said, "We're reviewing it."

Still, Vice President Biden kept the issue alive later in the day in a fundraising email to supporters in which he mentioned Romney's opposition to funding Sesame Street and other PBS programs. And to warm up the crowd for Obama in Ohio, the campaign played the theme of Sesame Street ahead of his arrival.

The Obama campaign insisted that such messaging did not take away from its focus on the economy. Still, a month before the election, the political class found itself debating whether it was appropriate to use a children's show for political purposes.

"It looks pretty frivolous, but I don't have a big strategic problem with it," said Dotty Lynch, a public communication professor at American University. "They are trying to use it to make a point about what Mitt Romney's specifics are for cutting the budget. To the extent that it illustrates that point, it's probably fine."