'It's first place or no place,' a Republican consultant used to say about politics.
Most of the 2000 presidential candidates will be spending money, time and effort trying to avoid the 'no place' finishes that relegate their legacies to Trivial Pursuit: 'Who placed third in New Hampshire?'
PR is important in the early phase of the nominating contest as candidates test messages and attempt to establish their credibility. Ted Van Dyk, an advisor to past Democratic presidential candidates, contends the non-front-runner candidate needs to find a 'differentiating' issue that can coalesce support around his campaign. But money and the targeting of states are equally important factors.
Post-1972, the centerpiece of strategies for the non-front-runners has been the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries. Drake University professor Hugh Winebrenner explains, 'Jimmy Carter created the legend of Iowa in which a little known presidential candidate through hard work and good organization wins and goes all the way to the White House.' Since then, however, the strategy has yielded mixed results.
George Bush followed a similar strategy in 1980, counting on the momentum from an Iowa victory to boost his fledgling campaign. He was helped by Ronald Reagan's failure to mount a full-fledged offensive in Iowa. Bush got the boost, but an invigorated Reagan disarmed his 'Big Mo' strategy.
Still, Winebrenner argues, Bush's establishing himself in Iowa paid dividends later when the VP nominee was being selected.
Iowa is often a game of expectations, and candidates such as Pat Robertson in 1988 and Lamar Alexander in 1996 sought big boosts just for placing in the top three. But the carryover effect for a good finish proved to be more limited than they had hoped. Winebrenner notes, 'Most second tier candidates do not have the dollars or support to do much beyond New Hampshire and Iowa.'
Gary Hart parlayed his second place showing in Iowa to take New Hampshire, but the slower-paced schedule back then gave Mondale time to recover, says Hill & Knowlton CEO Tom Hoog, a former Hart aide. Hoog says Hart might have come out the winner in 1984 with the compressed schedule, helped greatly by momentum. He thinks the schedule could be a boon for Bradley if he can upset Gore in Iowa or New Hampshire.
Bradley's recent success in fund-raising indicates that what might have happened in 1984 could be plausible today. While Gore remains the favorite, even a Gore supporter remarked several weeks ago that perhaps the VP had done too good a job of clearing the field. The anti-Gore vote will now coalesce around Bradley rather than be divvied up between several candidates.
Clearly, Bradley's strong fund-raising ability has helped to endow his race with credibility. Stu Rothenberg, publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report, remarks, 'Bill Bradley, by virtue of the money he's raised and being the lone alternative, has become a relevant candidate.' Bradley's rationale for running appears to have less to do with substantive issue differences with the VP rather than style and approach.
Bradley has not really laid out where he stands in great detail yet.
But Dennis Johnson of George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management contends that Bradley's strength is that 'unstated message. He doesn't have to say, "I'm Bill Bradley and I'm this or that."'
That very reluctance to say much right now is probably smart politics.
Still, the nomination is likely Gore's to lose unless the economy nosedives or a new rash of scandals afflict the Clinton administration. As GOP communications consultant Gordon Hensley notes, Bradley in the short-term has a simple job positioning himself versus the VP. 'But in the long-term,' he insists, 'it's still difficult because you can't just post credible showings (in caucuses and primaries) but must win.'
The situation is quite different on the Republican side, where GWU's Johnson proclaims, 'You have this very important financial primary, which is over now.' Bush's dollars 36 million gives him a real edge. His success in corralling money and endorsements has probably exceeded the expectations of his rivals.
The GOP side is crowded with candidates. Some are expected to drop out due to financial constraints and low standings in the opinion polls. The fight for those remaining is as much against Bush as it is to establish themselves as legitimate contenders. John Kasich's campaign press secretary Todd Harris admits, 'It's harder to get attention for all of the candidates running in George Bush's shadow. At some point, there will be a small number of candidates who emerge as viable alternatives.'
Strategies to be one of those viable alternatives vary, but the two campaigns by credible contenders that offer diametrically opposed styles are Steve Forbes and Pat Buchanan. Forbes has the money to advertise early. His financial wherewithal, in fact, makes him a very formidable contender who could stay in the contest as long as he cares to write checks. But Forbes is not a compelling speaker and his lack of political experience is likely to be a liability.
Buchanan is Forbes' mirror opposite. Buchanan's campaign style was once called 'survivalist' by a GOP campaign consultant. He eschews the high-priced media consultants. But his zest for politics, mastery of the sound bite and deep-seated conservative beliefs gave him staying power in the 1992 and 1996 campaigns, even though most politicians discounted his chances.
This time, he is jostling with Gary Bauer, Bob Smith, Alan Keyes, Dan Quayle, and perhaps Orrin Hatch for support from social conservatives.
Most candidates lack the wallet of Forbes or the galvanizing, polarizing appeal of a Buchanan. They will have to scramble not just to get their message out, but to raise the money to deliver it. Targeting special constituencies is one strategy that is employed by several non-front-runners to get a boost.
Elizabeth Dole, number two in the polls, has proven to be an attractive candidate to many Republican women who are excited that they can help the first viable female presidential candidate. Similarly, John McCain, ex-naval aviator and Vietnam War POW, is targeting veterans, hoping that they can become a cornerstone of his fledgling campaign.
A smart strategy and a sound PR effort can help longshots surge from no place to some place in a front-loaded primary schedule. But the candidate who places second in Iowa or New Hampshire had better be prepared to capitalize quickly, even in the winnowed field. If not, he or she will learn fast enough that second place really is 'no place.'