Presidential Campaigners Try TV Talk-Show Route

AMERICAN politics - 1992 style - is achangin'.

Ross Perot went on NBC's "Today" show recently for two hours, attracting its biggest audience since the Persian Gulf war. Not to be outdone, Bill Clinton blew his saxophone on "Arsenio Hall," then went after the youth vote by answering questions Tuesday night on MTV, the music video channel.

From late-night TV to early morning shows, presidential challengers are discovering new ways to reach Americans, including young people who traditionally ignore politics.

In years gone by, politicians relied mostly on news broadcasts and TV ads to reach voters. Now they're getting hours of valuable free time by courting Phil Donahue, Charlie Gibson, and Katie Couric.

A number of political experts cheer this latest wrinkle in campaigning. But it poses potential problems for President Bush.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, calls it "terrific" that politicians are appearing on talk shows and entertainment networks, such as MTV, which reach large numbers of people who are only marginally interested in politics.

Richard Noyes, election project director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs, suggests that putting Governor Clinton and Mr. Perot on the air for hours might even boost voter turnout.

The White House, however, must decide how to deal with this latest political twist of the dial.

Mr. Bush could easily match Clinton and Perot, greeting viewers at 7 a.m. on "Good Morning, America" or tucking them into bed at night with the help of Jay Leno.

Yet Dean Jamieson cautions that duplicating the Perot-Clinton strategy on TV would elevate them to the status of equals - something no president wants to do. At the same time, Bush cannot simply abandon TV to his rivals.

Tony Mitchell, deputy press secretary for the Bush campaign, says the president gets hundreds of requests to appear on talk shows and other programs.

He says the president's campaign goal will be "figuring out venues to talk to more people, more directly." He promises: "We will be fully engaged."

Meanwhile, voters are getting up-close views of candidates unlike any they have seen before. The other day, for example, Perot went on "Today" and was peppered with questions for two hours by viewers via a toll-free, 800 number.

Perot found that citizens, like reporters, are not always easily satisfied. When a viewer in Vero Beach, Fla., said she was "shocked" to hear that Perot would cut off Social Security benefits to older Americans with incomes more than $60,000 a year, he talked about the need to create a better America for the viewer's grandchildren.

The answer didn't fly. "Well, he didn't really answer the question," the viewer retorted. Perot was forced to try again.

James Carville, Clinton's campaign strategist, clearly relished the opportunity to get his man in front of a TV audience where he could informally talk politics and prove his prowess with a saxophone. But he admits this new, no-holds-barred style of campaigning, including call-in questions, can be risky. "It's the most unpredictable endeavor I've ever been in," he told an ABC interviewer.

Lewis Wolfson, a professor of communication at American University, says the rapid expansion of cable-TV has helped open up the airwaves to politics. He says both Perot and Clinton could gain.

"Perot needs to get himself known," Professor Wolfson says, while "Clinton needs to convince people that he has presidential stature." Long segments on TV may serve those purposes.

"The talk shows have become a central dispenser of one type of news on television," Wolfson explains, though "overexposure" could hurt.

All this seems new, but political veterans recall that several earlier candidates had their own versions of people-to-people campaigning over the air.

In 1952, Brailey Odham, a Sanford, Fla., auto dealer, conducted radio talkathons in his campaign for governor. Though little known before his radio campaign, Mr. Odham ran strongly.

In 1962, Richard Nixon used telethons in his run for governor of California. Stephen Hess, a Brookings scholar, recalls taking part in those programs. Mr. Hess's job was to take questions phoned in by viewers and "make them tougher" before passing them along to Mr. Nixon.

"Nixon believed tougher questions made for a better show," Mr. Hess explains. Nixon liked the TV format, Hess says. "He thought it was very effective."

That wasn't Nixon's only dabbling in talk-show TV. "He also went on `Tonight,' starring Jack Paar," Hess recalls. "He did it several times, and I'm almost certain he played the piano."

With Nixon's piano and Clinton's saxophone leading the way, the only question now may be: Do Bush and Perot play any instruments?

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