Courting cameras in a campaign

"Media politics" pervades the 1980 presidential campaign. So crucial do campaign strategists regard this fall's supreme television event -- the debates -- that President Carter is willing to risk voter disapproval rather than give his opponents, particularly John Anderson, a place alongside him before the cameras.

The debates, however, are only one part of the media game for 1980, played to roll before the TV cameras.

As glimpsed by millions on the evening TV news, candidate Reagan sprightly climbs the aircraft steps, turns, suddenly recognizes the crowd beyond the cameras and reporters, and waves broadly. Then he confidently enters his campaign Pegasus -- dubbed "Leadership '80."

It could be any airport. This week it was Virginia's Dulles, Chicago's Midway, Milwaukee's County, and Cleveland's Hopkins.

Unobserved by the TV audience is the fact that almost invariably there are no crowds out there beyond the newsmen for Mr. Reagan to wave to.

Leadership '80 and its sidekick aircraft for newsmen come and go from remote cargo ramps far from the political matinee crowd. These points often are so remote that newsmen travel by bus to the terminal.

It is all visual politics 1980, which requires a candidate to create a crowd out of camera's view with a wave of the hand.

To a remarkable degree, both Reagan and Carter have been put under careful visual-media wraps. Neither has called a press conference since Carter's early August family defense in the Billygate affair, and Reagan's embarrassing pre-Labor Day send-off of running mate George Bush to China. Reagan's handlers want to avoid more verbal stumbles; and Carter's want to create a presidential, hard-at-work theme punctuated with airport arrivals on the Democratic incumbent's steed, Air Force One.

"My job is to see that Reagan doesn't hold any more press conferences than Carter," quips Reagan press aid Lyn Nofziger.

The campaigns themselves have gone into slow motion, not noticed in the short video takes or still camera shots.

On the road, there is no whistle-stopping in the old sense of a weeks-long march through the countryside. The pace is leisurely, no predawn factory handshakes. The campaigns move in daylight to one or two "visuals" for the evening news -- like Reagan's noon rally Tuesday at a Kokomo, Ind., shopping mall, in sight of an idled auto plant; his stroll that afternoon in a Chicago neighborhood, munching on Lithuanian pastries, or a noon rally in downtown Cleveland.

Sometimes the visuals hit big -- like Reagan's Labor Day opener with the Statue of Liberty appearing prominently in the background. More memorable than an hour of speeches were the footage and photos captioned "Ronnie and Nancy dancin' the two- step" on the Philadelphia Museums's steps.

Major campaign speeches are metered, held to one or two a week to focus attention.

The major candidates have their preferred media settings, while Anderson cannot be quite as choosy. Crowds are picked to reduce risk of disruption.

Carter seems to prefer the safe formalities of labor union endorsements, or "town meetings" where he answers questions from deferential citizens.

For Reagan, Eastern European ethnic neighborhoods have lately been the vogue -- like the Polish enclave in South Milwaukee Tuesday afternoon. It was a typical Reagan setting: the firehouse at Eighth and Hayes draped in red-white-and-blue bunting, a two- accordian-and-banjo band tuning up the crowd and ready at a signal to drown out protest.

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