Modern Twists on Old-Style Politicking
Colorado candidates lead the way in election-year campaign stunts
DENVER — When Gil Romero decided to run for US Senate, he took a literal approach: An avid runner, he vowed to log at least six miles pounding the pavement in every Colorado county. On average, that translates to 18 miles a day of running - and front-page coverage in every town he lopes through.
"It's been a great way of connecting with people and getting our message out," says Mr. Romero. "I've run with a man in cowboy boots and an 83-year-old woman."
A political gimmick? Sure. But stunts like "running for office" also suggest a return to old-style politicking. Before the advent of television and sound bites, political careers were built on face-to-face encounters and the power of an eloquently spoken message. Now, as the cost of campaigning escalates, more candidates are turning to political stunts that bring a dual reward: free publicity, and the chance to capitalize on personal contact with voters.
From Lamar Alexander's flannel-clad march through snowy New Hampshire in the 1996 presidential primary to Bruce Babbitt's bike ride across Iowa more than a decade ago, such tactics have been a part of the US political landscape since the days of George Washington. But ever since Dick Lamm hiked 881 miles across Colorado to win the governor's race nearly a quarter-century ago, such enterprising, back-to-basics strategies have been a staple of Centennial State politics.
One familiar example is incumbent Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who revs around on his Harley-Davidson, clad in leather, to play up his image as a Western free spirit. And this year, as election primaries near, a host of political contenders in Colorado, like Romero, are trying to draw themselves into the limelight the old-fashioned way.
US Senate candidate Dottie Lamm is performing once-a-week "workdays" at day-care centers and out building backcountry trails. Gubernatorial candidate Gail Schoettler is riding horseback across the state. Bill Owens, another competitor in the governor's race, has already fulfilled his vow to visit all 63 counties in the state. And congressional candidate Mark Udall relies on the tried-and-true method of knocking on doors in suburban neighborhoods and chatting with constituents.
"One of the major goals [of political stunts] is to try to humanize the candidate - which is more and more difficult when dealing with a growing number of constituents," observes Andrew Busch, a political science professor at the University of Denver. "Stunts can be effective. But generally they're most effective for candidates who are not all that well known."
Playing up your strengths
For Romero, that was a deciding factor in his "race strategy." Despite being a veteran state legislator, the former public defender and prosecutor had little name recognition. And even less cash. "We decided to play up our strengths: For the last 20 years, I've run marathons," he says.
Romero's message likewise distinguishes him. Reminiscent of Robert F. Kennedy, he speaks of the nation's need for greater compassion, tolerance, and justice. The son of a coal miner, he repeats the political advice offered by his late father: "La gente primero - the people first." And with this populist message, Romero has forged his way to becoming front-runner for the Democratic nomination against the better-known and better-financed Mrs. Lamm - the wife of former Governor Lamm.
"We're in the people race; we'll let someone else win the money race," he says of the mere $70,000 he has spent campaigning. In fact, if Romero wins the Aug. 11 primary, he will have spent less money than any candidate who has won a major-party nomination for US Senate during the past 20 years.
Poster boy for underdogs
He also may establish himself as the poster politician for campaign stunts. Candidates like Romero - underdogs who are short on cash, but with a clear message - will benefit most from gimmicks, according to Mr. Busch. "There's really only two ways to get your name out: Paid advertising or free advertising. And if you can't afford ads, getting free media coverage is the only way of doing it."
And while stunts don't necessarily provide clues to a candidate's platform, the best ones are "substantively connected to the campaign issues," Busch adds. Of course, to succeed, politicians also need to speak the language of voters. Some stunts just fall flat: When Bob Dole vowed to campaign for three days straight leading up to the 1996 presidential election, the effort failed.
On the other hand, even candidates with a political pedigree can benefit from simplifying and personalizing their campaign. Mark Udall is the son of Morris "Mo" Udall, who served in Congress for 30 years. His uncle, Stewart Udall, was Interior secretary under Presidents Johnson and Kennedy. But rather than ride on the coattails of his heritage, the younger Mr. Udall is out walking door to door almost every afternoon, handing out fliers and getting to know voters.
"I'll end up pulling weeds, eating rhubarb pie, or maybe watching a Bulls-Pacers game. It's a kick," he says. But above all, "If you can make the face-to-face contact, people are going to remember that you made the effort, and it can make the difference," Udall says fervently. "It sends a message. It lets people know that I care enough to go out and talk to them."