In this campaign, image really is everything

With US humming along, candidates rely on inner resources rather than issues.

The moment Sig Rogich saw the clip on the evening news of then-presidential candidate Michael Dukakis riding on a tank, dwarfed by a combat helmet, he instinctively knew there was a commercial in the making.

"I don't ever like to see a candidate in a hat, and you certainly never put them in a helmet," says Mr. Rogich, the Republican advertising and public-relations executive credited with helping turn around George Bush's 1988 presidential campaign.

Within weeks of Rogich's commercial hitting the air, Mr. Dukakis's commanding lead was slipping as the image of him as an effective, innovative governor was replaced with that of a goofy little guy on a big tank.

Fair or not, images like that have played a powerful role in American presidential politics since a reluctant George Washington was coerced into running for the job because of his glowing aura as a war hero.

With the advent of television, where pictures and emotion rule over rational discourse, the power of imagery has become even more important. And more difficult to control, as small gaffes (like the addition of an "e" to the word potato) are used as shorthand for a candidate's failings.

But some pundits believe that in this election year, with the economy purring along and no compelling issues to fuel their campaigns, the images that Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore project will be even more critical in determining the next president.

"Right now, we're in an almost issue-less environment, they're literally just props in this campaign," says Tobe Berkovitz, a professor of communication at Boston University. "And because of that, image, persona, has become much more important as a criteria: Who is this person, what is his character, does he care about people like me?"

A product of the press, paid advertising, debate performance, and personality, the overall image conveyed to the American people can make or break a campaign. For example, despite being a gifted athlete, President Gerald Ford could never throw off the image of a stumbler.

Early on in this presidential race, voters warmed so much the authentic, honest images projected by mavericks John McCain and Bill Bradley, that they almost upset their party establishments' chosen heirs. And both Messrs. Gore and Bush have been quick to try to grab the mantle of the reformer. In doing so, both candidates' images have been transformed, and analysts like the Pew Center's Andy Kohut expect them to go through a few more permutations before election day.

For instance, last year Bush was seen as the "affable centrist" who got things done in Texas. Now, after his bruising campaign against Senator McCain, people are much more likely to use words like "arrogant" and "cocky," and he's perceived as more aligned with the right.

From 'goofy' to 'effective'

While Gore is still seen as "stiff" and sometimes "goofy," his successful routing of former Senator Bradley helped his image as a "strong and effective leader" who's able to get across his point of view.

Diane Cook-Tench, executive director of the Adcenter at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, believes the large number of debates early on in the primary process helped define the candidates' images. "The debates are what's giving the public their perception of Bush as preppy and arrogant, because that's literally how he comes across in the debates," she says.

But analysts also attribute Bush's problems to two other things: the attacks of his opponents, who were trying to tarnish his image through paid advertising, as well as the media, which was angling for a fight.

"I'd say those were successful portrayals by his opponents ... and of course, the press was looking for something," says Rogich. "They like competition and tight races."

It can also be difficult to grapple with the impression that the public already has about candidates and their record.

For instance, last week at a rejuvenated old steel mill outside of Pittsburgh, Bush touted the more than 450 brownfield sites cleaned up in Texas since 1995. The image he was hoping to project was that of a committed environmentalist willing to trade cumbersome federal regulations for effective results.

Hurt by Elian, environment

But critics were quick to point out that Texas is by several measures the most polluted state in the union, and the picture that came across in several media outlets was that of a politically expedient candidate willing to wear any garb to get elected.

That's an image that is also haunting Gore, particularly since he publicly broke with the White House and favored giving Elian Gonzalez permanent-resident status. It was seen by many as the worst kind of pandering.

"Gore seemed to step up and fill the charge that Bush has been making about him: that he'd do anything - accent on anything - to become president," says Mr. Kohut.

But Kohut says there's still the opportunity for candidates to reach out to people and "affect them with their personality."

"Since this is so much about personal issues, the one-on-ones when these guys debate are going to be extremely important, because how else are you going to judge them?" he says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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