'General Clark, Madonna is on the line.'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In 1988 we had Lloyd Bentsen telling Dan Quayle that he knew JFK, and that Mr. Quayle was no JFK. This year's pre-election identity disputes - still Democrat-vs.-Democrat at this point - may soon have candidates fighting over who knows Busta Rhymes, and who's hippest to the hip-hop artist's lyrics.

Pop culture and presidential politics have overlapped for years. Kennedy himself appeared on the set with Jack Paar, father of all TV talk-show hosts. A generation later, President Clinton's bids to prove he was plugged-in included an MTV appearance in which he famously weighed in on boxers versus briefs.

But some of today's candidates seem even more determined to proclaim specific pop- culture allegiances and claim vital minutes of America's water-cooler chat time. And some experts say that reach is becoming a stretch.

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With clear political distinctions tough for candidates to make, "hijacking culture and brands is the easy win," says Marian Salzman, executive vice president and chief strategy officer of Euro RSCG Worldwide, a New York advertising and corporate-communications firm.

Whether it's hijacking or just hitchhiking, there's a whole lot of it going on.

Wesley Clark quoted the OutKast song "Hey Ya!" to a student at Bowdoin College. ("Shake it like a Polaroid picture," declared the former NATO supreme commander, who picked up an endorsement from Madonna on Tuesday.) Howard Dean, a professed fan of rap-reggae star Wyclef Jean, also publicly hinted at his coziness with the pop term "metrosexual" - code for a very well-groomed urban male - before backing away from it, calling himself unclear on its meaning.

John Kerry dropped an "f-bomb" during a Rolling Stone interview early this month, either impassioned about President Bush's handling of Iraq or - as some critics have charged - calculating that the word would resonate with the magazine's aging-rocker readers.

Al Sharpton has made his own statement with a "Saturday Night Live" appearance.

Some observers say the surge in pop-culture references, and in candidate's "regular guy" behavior, is not about chasing any particular voter demographic. Rather, they say, it's about trying to notch broad, mass-media hits at a time when media interest, reflecting popular interest, runs more to entertainment than to serious debate.

"It's nice to think that we would be made a culture by sharing philosophy or religion or some aspiration," says James Twitchell, a professor of English at the University of Florida who writes extensively about American culture. [But] the lingua franca is no longer philosophy or even politics. The lingua franca is pop culture."

Choosing a reference that reflects particular, recognizable characteristics, he says, can offer a candidate an easy handle.

Pop culture first galloped into political discourse during the Clinton era, Mr. Twitchell says, "with Roger Ailes and the concepts of marketing as a way to make instant contact with your consumers, which is really what voters are." Lately the trend has gathered more speed.

"It's about connecting, with language and [with] things that are in common culture that people will understand," says Peter Fenn, who teaches campaign advertising at George Washington University and heads Fenn Communications Group, a Washington consulting firm. "People are getting their basic views about politics from Jay Leno, MTV, and 'The Daily Show.' "

For some voters, says Mr. Fenn, the pop-speak is a welcome change from the language of Washington insiders. "You always want somebody to sort of be 'out there' a little, and to 'get it,' " says Fenn, who worked on Al Gore's White House bid in 2000. But for candidates, he says, the strategy also has its dangers. "You do have to know what you're talking about," he says, "and you can't be too flip or glib." It also helps to know your sources.

"You go back to Fritz Mondale and Gary Hart, and of course the great line in one of the key debates was 'Gary, where's the beef?' " Fenn says. The line had been spoken by a feisty woman in a Wendy's ad. Not only did Mondale not know the pop-culture origin of his own quip until it was pointed out to him, says Fenn, but his campaign manager didn't know either. "These guys had been too involved [with the campaign], and they didn't watch TV," says Fenn with a laugh. The line had been suggested by the campaign manager's girlfriend.

The current candidates tend to play their pop references with the hint of a smile. At Clark campaign headquarters in Little Rock, Ark., staffers have had the apparent incongruity - the general and the rappers - pointed out to them before.

"People have asked [General Clark] if he listens to OutKast, and his response has been 'You can shake it like a Polaroid picture,' " says Bill Buck, Clark's press secretary. After a silent moment, Mr. Buck continues. "He has an interest in all forms of music."

Clark had been asked to record a 30-second spot for MTV's "Rock the Vote" campaign, Buck explains. At that session, citing OutKast felt appropriate. So was he fed the line? "As he has traveled around with his staff, obviously he's been listening to different music," says Buck. "I don't know what his level of exposure to rap music was before the campaign, but he's picked up a little knowledge along the way."

At Mr. Kerry's campaign headquarters in Washington, a staffer declines to comment on his candidate's motivation for using a profanity, but he does want to make the point that Kerry also "jammed with [electronica artist] Moby onstage."

How the Democratic candidates will fare in this game against a sitting president is unclear. Mr. Bush has so far steered clear, saying his focus remains on his job.

Experts like to point out that Bush also has been adept at imagemaking, choosing to emphasize the Midland, Texas, part of his background, for instance, over Connecticut, Andover and Yale.

Still, when he was asked about his favorite musical group during the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush named a country-rock duo, the Everly Brothers. It was a choice that even some of his detractors concede does not seem out of character.

Ultimately, candidates need to stop short of getting "too cute," says Fenn.

"[Voters] know you're 50-plus; they know where you came from," he says. "The American public wants you to get it, but they don't want you to pretend that you're something you're not."

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