Glenn's task for '84: building -- but not resting -- on folk hero status
New Concord, Ohio — In an age of media politics, the prospect of a face-off between the former astronaut, Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio, and one-time cinema figure Ronald Reagan might appear likely to capture the voting public's imagination.
Some have gone so far as to dub such a match-up as ''star wars'' - due in part to the fact that Senator Glenn often uses the theme from the movie ''Star Wars'' at campaign functions. But celebrity status and politics mix far less than is popularly thought: Political analysts readily agree it was President Reagan's ideology, not his years on the silver screen, that earned him the GOP nomination in 1980.
So it must be with Glenn, who officially announced his candidacy here Thursday. Monitor soundings in key caucus and primary states show Glenn gaining little support based solely on his image as a folk hero.
Even Democratic presidential front-runner Walter Mondale - a former vice-president better known among Democrats than former astronaut Glenn - has reason to worry about the depth of support for his candidacy among Democrats who are likely to vote.
At the moment, Mr. Mondale benefits from a widely held view among party activists that he is best positioned to dislodge President Reagan in '84. But his ''strong'' support in New Hampshire has held steady at 11 percent level since last June, despite his climb to 37 percent in overall support among likely Democratic voters in early April.
The entire Democratic field has so far failed to forge a strong ideological link with voters. It's that link, not celebrity status, that won the GOP nomination for Reagan in 1980.
''Ronald Reagan had the strongest solid ideological support of any candidate in recent years,'' says opinion analyst Burns Roper. ''It was based on his conservatism, not his film stardom.'' Reagan's positions were known from his years of campaigning and speechmaking.
''Celebrity status doesn't buy Glenn very much,'' Mr. Roper says. ''It'll get him a little press coverage. It may get him some early support. It does enough good to make him talked about as a contender rather than a Senator from Ohio. It's probably the margin of difference between Glenn and the other senators - [ South Carolina's Ernest] Hollings, [California's Alan] Cranston, and [Colorado's Gary] Hart.''
''Celebrity status is not convertible to voting strength,'' one Glenn aide agrees.
Familiarity gives candidates an edge. Mondale is best known nationally (91 percent), followed by Glenn (76 percent), and Senator Cranston (42 percent), according to the Gallup Poll. Mondale correspondingly leads with 32 percent of Democratic voter support, followed by Glenn at 13 percent and all others under 6 percent. But, as in New Hampshire, nearly half the voters say they ''don't know'' yet whom they would favor.
In New Hampshire, Glenn has been losing ground steadily the past year - from 14 percent among likely Democratic voters in June '82 to 12 percent in January ' 83, and 9 percent on April 8, according to Blake and Dickenson surveys.
''New Hampshire Democrats know Glenn's an astronaut,'' says Richard Bennett, political pollster for the Manchester, N.H., firm of Blake and Dickenson. ''But they don't know much about Glenn as a candidate for president. He hasn't been able to capitalize on his familiarity. He can't rely on being John Glenn. He has to work as hard as everyone else.''
In Iowa, the first caucus state in '84, Glenn and his staff have established less of a presence than several Democratic rivals.
''We have yet to see any impact from Glenn's celebrity status,'' says Karen Kapler, executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party. ''I don't know whether the aura of being an astronaut will help him here. Nationally, the view of the Glenn campaign is that if he wins, it will be in spite of his organization. If he thinks the Iowa countryside will be set on fire, he will be disappointed.''
In Texas, a state Democrats and Republicans alike see as crucial to success in '84, it's Glenn's own perceived conservatism, not any star status, that makes him attractive to many of the state's Democrats.
''Glenn would help Democrats on the statewide ticket more than any other candidate,'' says one Texas Democratic official. ''He's basically conservative - at least as he's perceived here. He's attractive to moneyed types who see Mondale as too pro-labor, too pro-minority. The question is: Can Glenn get the nomination?
''The people Glenn's selected to run things here are light years behind the quality of Mondale's people.''
In Washington State, an early '84 test of Western strength, Glenn likewise has his work cut out for him. Caucus states like Iowa and Washington put a premium on campaign organization and voter contact.
''It's very unlikely anything would happen for Glenn, except through the party process,'' says state party director Jeff Smith. ''External celebrity status won't affect political positions, which are not worked out in the public's thinking until very late.''
And in California, biggest delegate state, Glenn has been ''flat in the water'' since last August, says California Poll director Mervin D. Field. With Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts out of the race, Glenn slipped a little in California, from 16 percent to 14 percent between last August and this March. In California Democratic nomination preference, Mondale held within a point at 35 percent, Cranston gained seven points to 31 percent, and Senator Hart gained 6 points, to 9 percent, over the same period.