ANALYSIS: Political PR - Bush's overt swagger wins Gore sympathy Gore and Bush PR staff have sailed in unchartered waters since Election. Day, reports Doug Quenqua, as they attempt to shed positive light on their men.

Americans like a fair fight. They don't like it when someone wins by exploiting an unfair advantage, and they don't like gloaters (think John McEnroe and the New York Yankees). They also have a special distaste for sore losers (Tonya Harding, Cruella Deville, etc.)

Americans like a fair fight. They don't like it when someone wins by exploiting an unfair advantage, and they don't like gloaters (think John McEnroe and the New York Yankees). They also have a special distaste for sore losers (Tonya Harding, Cruella Deville, etc.)

Americans like a fair fight. They don't like it when someone wins by exploiting an unfair advantage, and they don't like gloaters (think John McEnroe and the New York Yankees). They also have a special distaste for sore losers (Tonya Harding, Cruella Deville, etc.)

Which is why George W Bush and Al Gore were doomed to look bad from the start. From the moment Florida slid back into the undecided column for the final time on Election Night, both candidates were lost causes.

Bush had ostensibly won the election, albeit under circumstances that were, at best, unusual. Al Gore had won the popular vote, but seemed destined to be robbed of the office by the arcane institution with which we've all been reacquainted, the Electoral College.

What's a communications staffer to do? If Bush's people wanted to win, they would have to do everything in their power to stop a recount. They would have to take the ballots and run, and act as if that 400-vote lead in Florida were a landslide. If Gore's camp wanted to get it back, they would have to kick and scream and raise hell in front of a stunned electorate.

One would be hard pressed to think of worse beginnings for a public relations campaign. But within these unfortunate margins, there was still room to maneuver. As PRWeek goes to press, Bush seems to have all but won the legal battle, but Gore is gaining in the public sympathy count.

Looking back, the Bush team had one thing on its side from the very beginning: a firm belief in a message so simple they could act it out for you.

'All they're saying is 'We won.'' says Karen Doyne, director of litigation communication at Ketchum. 'That's a very simple message, and it's easy to communicate. Gore's message is a little too complex, and that makes it harder to get across.'

Bush had attracted the ire of Congressional Republicans for relying too much on his confidence and swagger in the days leading up the election.

Nonetheless, and perhaps at the expense of some public sympathy, he relied on that same assurance after Election Day to position himself as the winner.

The signals were everywhere. Bush leaked the names of potential cabinet members to the press; he publicly called upon Al Gore to concede the race; and, in the subliminal PR play of the year, members of his staff arranged the chairs in the Texas Governor's mansion into a formation resembling the setup in the Oval Office.

But that presumptuousness has come back to haunt him, says Bruce Altschuler, professor and chief of political science at Oswego University. Over time, the Bush team's perceived arrogance, coupled with the stronghand tactics of Florida officials moonlighting as Bush supporters, has created a swell of sympathy for Gore.

'There are three things that are helping Gore,' he says. 'Bush's connections in Florida, where some officials have actually campaigned for him; the fact that Gore undoubtedly won the popular vote, which gives him leverage; and the fact that he's stressing the value of an accurate count.'

Altschuler's final point may prove to be the elephant in the kitchen that neither the candidates nor the public can ignore.

If the math holds up, there are conceivably enough uncounted votes left in Democratic strongholds like Palm Beach and Broward counties to give Gore the win. Therefore Bush is condemned to trying to sell the idea that expediency should take precedent over accuracy, that it's more important to get this finished than to get every vote counted. That's not an easy sell in a democracy, especially when few people seem to see the urgency.

According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from the week of November 13, 55% of those surveyed say they prefer to wait for a recount, even if it takes a couple of weeks. Only 41% said they prefer a quick end to the saga, which strongly suggests that a substantial number of people who voted for Bush no longer agree with his message. That's not good news for the Texas governor.

As of press time, however, the Bush camp has been given a legal boost.

Circuit court judge Terry Lewis has backed the decision of Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris, a vocal Bush supporter whom many claim has abused her authority by refusing to honor further recounts.

But legal support won't necessarily translate into public sympathy. If Jim Lanard, president of FLG Strategies and former campaign spokesperson and strategist for New Jersey governor Jim Florio, is right, it can only make matters worse for Bush from a PR point of view.

'Katherine Harris has made the vice president appear much more reasonable and fair. She continues to make all sorts of mistakes, not the least of which was timing her announcement about not accepting recounts right in the middle of West Wing. Millions of viewers were torn over what to watch - Harris or the show. She really should have thought about that,' Lanard says.'

TV shows aside, Judge Lewis' decision clears the way for Harris to impose the ultimate PR burden on Al Gore by declaring Bush the winner in Florida (and effectively the country) after counting absentee ballots early Saturday morning.

But if Lanard's basic point - that Harris does not have the sympathy of the public - and Altshuler's point - that the more the recounts get suppressed, the better Gore looks - are correct, than this legal and political triumph for Bush may mean PR nightmares lay ahead for him.

But one thing is certain. Regardless of who eventually makes it into office, there will come a time when the other has to concede. And although political pundits are fond of discussing the PR difficulties the new president will face because of this ordeal, few experts agree with that opinion.

Says Lanard, 'As president, Gore or Bush will have a hard time initially. But remember, we have an impeached president who has nonetheless remained very active and done some very important things. Nothing has held him back.'

He does concede, however, that 'George W would have a harder time than the vice president. One way or the other now, he has lost the popular vote, and history does not bode well for that.'

In response to the most recent court ruling, Gore's powerhouse attorney, David Boies, the man who is largely credited with turning around the government's antitrust case against Microsoft, announced that the appeals will continue.

If nothing else this guarantees that, short of any unforeseen developments (and let's face it, this whole thing is an unforeseen development), we are all in for a lengthy and public court battle. And there's no reason to believe anyone will benefit from that.



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