Analysis: Campaign 2000 - Can McCain’s PR spoil a party’s coronation?/John McCain scored a stunning landslide upset in New Hampshire, and many Beltway insiders credit his PR strategy as a major factor. But will the ’Straight Talk E

The promise that ’the last shall come first’ may guarantee admittance into Heaven, but not victory in the New Hampshire primary.

The promise that ’the last shall come first’ may guarantee admittance into Heaven, but not victory in the New Hampshire primary.

The promise that ’the last shall come first’ may guarantee

admittance into Heaven, but not victory in the New Hampshire

primary.



Yet, Senator John McCain achieved a stunning victory over the

frontrunner, Texas Governor George W. Bush. Neither McCain nor the

insurgent campaign of former senator Bill Bradley was expected to

receive their respective party’s nomination. Both, however, had carved

out leads in polls several weeks before New Hampshire’s balloting.

Bradley fell short of victory against a resurgent Al Gore, who had

triumphed in the Iowa caucus the week before. But McCain was able to

withstand the Bush campaign, despite not even competing in Iowa.



Why? McCain’s PR strategy was a big reason. As former WMUR-TV

(Manchester, NH) political reporter Dan Leonard tells PRWeek, ’McCain

was the right man with the right message with the right method.’



’Baring his soul’ to voters



One thing that McCain did right, says Leonard, was to concentrate his

resources and time on New Hampshire while eschewing the Iowa caucus.

That helped McCain maximize his exposure in the small state, allowing

him to conduct 114 town meetings during the 71 days he spent campaigning

in the Granite State. A former Chlopak, Leonard & Schecter SVP, Leonard

says McCain’s emphasis on New Hampshire also played into the pride that

residents feel about their state: ’New Hampshire voters like to feel

they hold a special place on the nation’s political calendar.’



The Senator’s desire to offer ’straight talk’ resonated with the mood of

a state that tends to distrust overly packaged candidates. One veteran

campaign operative credited McCain with being able to ’bare his soul to

the voters’ in an appealing manner to many New Hampshire voters,

particularly in the post-Clinton era.



A study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism on the early

national news coverage reinforces that assertion. Most stories about the

candidates in both parties tended to focus on strategies, tactics and

resources.



But in reviewing McCain’s coverage, the study found he ’was the most

successful of the Republicans in controlling his coverage in the sense

that stories about him were candidate driven. McCain also got more

coverage of his ideas than any other Republican.’



The report added that McCain is far more accessible to the press than

other presidential candidates in the recent past. Its conclusion holds

that the McCain victory may signify that ’accessibility pays,’

particularly because the campaign’s news ’is not filtered through aides

and spin doctors.’



Meanwhile, Bush had the edge in coverage over the other GOP and

Democratic candidates, according to the study. But little stood out

about the coverage, other than its concentration on nuts-and-bolts

topics. Indeed, the term often used by politicians to describe Bush’s

nomination campaign was ’coronation.’



Right after Bush’s Iowa victory, GOP consultant Tom Hockaday of

Alexandria, VA-based Campaign Solutions told PRWeek that the Governor

still had something to prove, particularly in the wake of the media’s

grumbling about being denied interviews. Hockaday emphasized that Bush

’needs to show that he is confident to deal with the general

election.’



Winning the early battle for favorable media coverage is not the same as

winning the battle for voters. But in this case, McCain won both.

Admittedly, McCain’s appeal was much stronger with independents, who

supported him over Bush 60% to 19%, according to The Los Angeles Times’

exit poll. McCain edged Bush among Republican voters 40% to 38%.



GOP consultant Jim Innocenzi of Sandler-Innocenzi argues that McCain

’won the PR battle.’ But winning the battle of New Hampshire is only the

first step needed to win the nomination, and there are plenty of

pitfalls ahead. Bush’s stronger financial resources and support from the

party establishment are still a decisive factor. The winnowing of the

field may also work to his advantage, as the supporters of failed

conservative candidates will have no place to go other than the

governor. Should he fail to prove himself post-New Hampshire, however,

the governor’s own support from the establishment may melt rather

fast.



Experts believe that George W. needs to personally deliver a stronger

rationale for his candidacy that not only speaks to his motivation for

running, but also demonstrates greater command of the issues. ’He has

been in danger of developing a Dan Quayle persona and needs to fix that

first. Otherwise, he will be Dan Quayle before he knows it,’ warns

Democratic consultant Steve McMahon, a partner at Trippi, McMahon &

Squier. Similarly, pollster Fred Yang, a partner at Washington-based

Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group, says Bush ’needs to start giving people

a reason to be for him.’



While McCain surged in South Carolina after New Hampshire, some

political observers suggest that his strategy may need its own revising

to appeal to voters in states that have less liberal-moderate

independents than New Hampshire. Innocenzi thinks McCain’s emphasis on

reforming the party might not play as well in states where party

regulars predominate. However true that may be, McCain’s success in

corralling independents led The Economist to suggest that McCain’s

reform message is resonating in the same way that Jesse Ventura’s

did.



Looking ahead, pundits are mulling whether McCain’s early lead in South

Carolina is a blip or something more. Rick Silver, a public affairs

consultant in Columbia, SC, says, ’The feeling down here is like a

general election and that could work to McCain’s advantage if Democrats

and independents turn out with Republicans for him. This will be an

amazing test of South Carolina’s reputation as the ’firewall’ for GOP

frontrunners.’



Coming up: more of the same?



Time will tell if McCain’s win can translate into victories in states

such as Michigan and California. But even if he wins one or more of

those big contests, Beltway insider Stuart Rothenberg predicts that the

looming March 14th primaries in Texas and Florida, where Bush and his

brother, Jeb, hold the governor’s chairs, may stamp out McCain’s

momentum.



McCain has clearly proven himself to be a more adroit politician, able

to tap into the feeling that politics has become too packaged, with too

much emphasis on spin rather than straight talk. His own tentativeness

in handling questions relating to abortion and the Confederate flag

controversy suggest there may be limits to his own candor. Furthermore,

the GOP has usually been unreceptive to mavericks, and so McCain may

very well discover, like Bush, that the laws of gravity also apply to

the political polls.



But politics is a perpetually surprising enterprise. New Hampshire’s

voters drew their conclusions, and it appears that the candidate who won

was more engaged, vibrant and had a stronger message. Now it will be up

to the rest of the nation’s citizens to determine whether the candidates

and their PR really match what they are seeking in our next president.



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