Campaign for British Leader Turns Into 'Battle of Buses'
Blair's glad-handing may upstage Major's dignified stance
CROYDON, UNITED KINGDOM
The young woman with the pearl necklace and cut-glass accent at the offices of the Conservative Party was adamant: The vehicle being used by Prime Minister John Major to scour Britain for votes was a "campaign coach."Skip to next paragraph
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Over at Labour Party headquarters, located in a working-class area of the British capital, one of Tony Blair's helpers, clad in jeans and jumper, was more down to earth. The opposition leader, she said, was about to board his "battle bus."
The words used by the two aides to describe the Major and Blair mobile campaign platforms have their counterparts in the adversaries' vote-seeking styles.
Major - grey-haired, bespectacled, looking every inch the bank manager he once was - seems to be striving hard to preserve his prime ministerial dignity and exude an aura of trustworthiness when he makes contact with voters.
As he walks carefully toward a pregnant woman outside a superstore at Croydon, near London, "Honest John," as admirers call him, begins to flash a smile, evidently anticipating a genial exchange of words.
When the woman tells him curtly that she "will definitely be voting Labour, regardless," Mr. Major responds "Oh really?" His smile quickly becomes a tight grin, which fades even faster, and he trudges on.
Of barn-storming and baby-kissing
Blair, on the stump, comes across very differently. He effects an extroverted, barn-storming image Americans would find familiar.
When the Labour bus arrives at a marginal constituency in central England, the opposition leader, his lawyer wife, Cheri, at his side, furiously waves an arm and bellows "Hello, Northampton!"
He then plunges into the crowd half-filling the city's 700-year-old marketplace, spots a woman wheeling a pram, shakes her hand, seizes the baby, and vigorously kisses it.
There is something confusing about the images the two leaders display as they proceed along the campaign trail. In fact, one of Blair's campaign advisers admits, glad-handing does not come easily to the Labour leader, who finds pressing the flesh "not entirely to his taste." To outward appearances, however, he is a more ebullient, confident campaigner than the prime minister.
This makes a comment from a Major campaign worker seem even more strange: "The prime minister is at his best in small groups and one-on-one meetings," the young helper remarks. "He likes talking quietly to people and hates formal occasions."
Substance or style?
How much impact the battle of the buses and the contrasting personalities of the rival leaders will have when ballots are cast in the general election on May 1 is an open question.
Peter Mandelson, Blair's campaign coordinator, who travels aboard the bus labeled "Into the Future," says it is "important for Labour's leader to meet as many voters as possible."
Over in the Conservative camp, a senior press aide is not so sure about the benefits of face-to-face electioneering by the man who has led Britain for the last seven years.
"He must mix with the voters, certainly, but this election will be won and lost on policies, not images," he says, adding: "Glitz is not as important as persuading people that the Tories are still capable of good government." That, of course, is exactly what Blair and other Labour campaigners are setting out to disprove.
At every campaign stop, the man who in three years has dragged Labour away from a commitment to old-fashioned socialism and turned it into a moderate, left-of-center party, hammers at "Tory tiredness" and Major's "dithering" style.
"After 18 years, the Tories are a spent force led by a failed prime minister," he tells the Northampton crowd.