Analysis: Election 2000 - In the battle of issues versus image, PR wins - In a close campaign like the Bush-Gore race, PR is crucial to promote policies - and personas. Steve Lilienthal asks which matters the most

A presidential campaign is a complex machine, but it all starts with the candidate. The challenge is to get their message out to a broad audience while building a public persona the electorate can identity with.

A presidential campaign is a complex machine, but it all starts with the candidate. The challenge is to get their message out to a broad audience while building a public persona the electorate can identity with.

A presidential campaign is a complex machine, but it all starts with the candidate. The challenge is to get their message out to a broad audience while building a public persona the electorate can identity with.

'Presidential campaigns are PR campaigns at heart,' says former McCain 2000 press secretary Howard Opinsky. 'Everyone except accounting is involved in PR to get their guy elected.'

Communications strategists flesh out the candidate's thinking on issues.

Opinion research helps determine what issues the candidate needs to address and where the campaign's efforts should be concentrated. Then an itinerary is assembled in order for the candidate to deliver the message, keeping in mind the need for backdrops that are visually appealing on the TV news.

The press secretary makes sure the news media is presented with the campaign's message. And TV ads help reinforce the message. There is also a large-scale opposition research unit, so the campaign's communications office can offer quick responses to their opponent's statements.

You like me, you really like me

Opinsky, now a managing director with BSMG, says the Bush and Gore campaign strategists spend most of their time on crafting strategies, delivering messages and planning events.

In other words, both Bush and Gore are putting more emphasis on PR in their respective campaigns, which begs the questions: is it style or substance that wins presidential elections?

Veteran political consultant Joe Cerrell says neither aspect necessarily prevails: 'I don't know that one precludes the other.' GOP consultant Jim Innocenzi agrees. 'It's not an either-or question. If you do not have good policy, you cannot do good PR.'

A few months ago, Gore 2000 chief strategist Carter Eskew asked veteran political consultant Joseph Napolitan to advance some ideas about the campaign. Napolitan insisted that an important word in this year's election was 'likability' of the candidates.

As one political communications professional puts it, in the electronic age, 'issues have become images.' Candidates seek to fuse an issue such as education into their own image. Thus, Bush and Gore have made many visits to schools to create the 'image' that they are concerned about education and therefore helping to create opportunity for the coming generation of Americans.

These images appear to help voters know where the candidates stand on the issues, but they also can leave voters wondering, 'Where do they differ?'

The media, particularly network news, often plays up the horse-race elements of the campaign at the expense of serious examination of policy, according to professional campaigners.

Greg Mueller, president of Creative Response Concepts, says that print coverage often does concentrate on issues but notes that most voters get their news from the top three networks. He adds, however, that network coverage is often focused on polls and popularity, intertwined with some news on the candidates' campaign issues that ends up going something like this: 'Candidate X, in a bid to boost his poll ratings with swing voters, is talking about Issue Y.'

Innocenzi is also critical of much of the news coverage by the networks.

'Nuances in policy positions are not news,' he says. 'Changes in poll ratings are.'

Then, of course, there's the 'gotcha' game of emphasizing gaffes and foibles.

In Bush's case, he and his strategists have had to avoid being painted as the empty suit in an effort to fight allegations that he is a candidate with little gravitas, less of a policy wonk than Gore, and - at least according to Democrats - has a mediocre record in Texas. Many in the press still have memories of his fumbling a foreign policy pop-quiz during the battle for the nomination.

Gore may have the opposite problem. 'Al Gore has put a lot more thought and emphasis on the substance than the style,' argues Gore national spokesman Doug Hattaway. Gore press secretary Chris Lehane chimes in: 'During the first debate Gore focused on the substance,' he says. 'But what the media covered was more theatrics and color as opposed to the substance.'

Despite these differences, as was noted in a recent article by Washington Post writer David Von Drehle, Bush has been relatively 'consistent' in how he delivers his message. 'Gore is constantly changing the message and volume.'

So with all this political PR, have voters just ended up more confused?

Maybe so, but many experts say messages aren't the issue. The issue is a matter of style.

Style really matters

Consultant Fred Davis says the election could very well be determined by who the voters feel more comfortable in having to watch on the evening news for the next four years.

While Gore is constantly changing styles and suits, Bush wears himself well. Several consultants noted that he appears more comfortable with his dress and how he projects himself. Gore, on the other hand, keeps shifting styles when it comes to clothes - and, some argue, campaign messages.

Despite this focus on images and style and appearances on Oprah, Jay Leno and David Letterman, Washington insiders still say issues matter more in the end. Democratic Leadership Council spokesperson Matt Frankel says what voters are most interested in is 'where the candidates come down on the issues' rather than where they pop up on the television.

There's less than a month to go, and the election is still neck and neck.

With Gore and Bush still stumping endlessly to get their message out to the voters, one thing's for sure: it will be a 'photo' finish.





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