Backstory: Remember, they're only running for office

Don't hand a candidate a possum and other rules to get through an election season.

I was sitting under the awning at the community pool last weekend, enjoying the final hours of Labor Day, when I saw a man wearing a large sticker on his chest bearing down on me.

Stickers on adults are not a good sign. Generally, they indicate a prank or someone running for office. "Hi," said the man warily, leaning away as if I might hit him. "I'm running for Congress. Hope you'll remember me at the polls."

"You're wearing wingtips at a pool, and your name tag is as big as a wolverine," I said. "You'll be hard to forget."

He took this as positive and edged toward the exit. But he didn't make it. From behind the snowcone stand, Oliver pounced. You may know Oliver as the voice of "Ollie the Trolley," a kids-show character that does phonics and light patter between childrens' shows.

Yes, he's a big, blocky guy. He's got a nose like a headlamp. "I'm not a streetcar!" he says, when you meet him in person. "I just play one on TV!"

Witty. Anyway, all those years warming up for "Teletubbies" have gotten to him. When he gets a chance for adult conversation, he's a spigot that won't turn off. A politician? Perfect! Ollie grabbed the guy and without so much as a "toot!" launched into a critique of the performance of Ben Bernanke. (Head of the US Federal Reserve. Like Alan Greenspan, but with better diction and even less hair.)

It went on and on. I took a dip and dried off and he was still at it. At that point, the candidate took off and began a half-jog past the ping-pong tables, toward a path that leads to the private school next door. "Basis points!" I heard, as Ollie's words floated back to me in snatches on the wind. "Overvalued! ... the Fed ... loosen ... liquidity ... wait just a minute, more...."

It's tough out there when you're running for office. As this incident shows, it can be a thankless task to expose yourself to the ineffable wisdom of the people. And since it's the season when politicians across America are venturing out for votes, only to meet their own versions of Ollie, I think it's time we laid down some rules from the candidate's point of view.

It's all about the name. That sticker was no anomaly – all candidates want to do is put their name in your mind. Not their party, not their positions. It's advertising, pure and simple. (Incidentally, politicians are allowed to put nicknames on the ballot. Which explains why there's a candidate for US Senate in Maryland named Daniel "Wig Man" Vovak.)

Don't touch me unless I touch you. Yes, candidates will shake your hand, usually in conjunction with a slap on the shoulder that seems friendly but is meant to push you along. They get tired of touching people. Who knows where the voters have been? After you've hugged a thousand babies you feel as if you've been sprayed with a fine mist of whirled peas.

Talk to the person behind me. See that earnest youth with the clipboard? The one trailing the candidate, with the worried gaze? That's the campaign assistant/intern, and it's his/her job to engage the public in substantive discussion. Got a problem with your Social Security? Tell it to my associate here. Worried about Iraq? Jason will jot down your concerns. A check? You shouldn't have. I'll handle that myself.

No souvenirs please. Live possums, coonskin hats, big pieces of fried dough – candidates are often handed things they don't want, and especially don't want to be in pictures with. Even caps are fraught with tension. If you're wearing a State U hat and that appears on page 1, the folks at Tech get pretty upset. So if you'd like to hand the candidate a souvenir, talk to Jason. He'll handle it.

So to get back to Ollie the Trolley, the next day I saw him in front of The Coffee Cup, handing out "Arthur" coloring books and campaign stickers.

"So that guy convinced you to vote for him," I said, nibbling my pumpkin scone.

"What do you mean?" he said. "That guy from the pool? He's a loser. These are my stickers. I'm running for school board."

Peter Grier is a Monitor writer in Washington.

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