INSIDE THE BELTWAY: The presidential primaries were fueled by image and issues, but did perception beat substance?

Ever since he left the presidential race with dignity and grace last week (unlike Bill Bradley, who could summon neither), John McCain has been the subject of widespread conversation among Democrats as the man they admired but would not have supported had he won the Republican nomination. One well-known lifelong Democratic woman put it this way: ’I would have loved to date him, but I would never have married him.’

Ever since he left the presidential race with dignity and grace last week (unlike Bill Bradley, who could summon neither), John McCain has been the subject of widespread conversation among Democrats as the man they admired but would not have supported had he won the Republican nomination. One well-known lifelong Democratic woman put it this way: ’I would have loved to date him, but I would never have married him.’

Ever since he left the presidential race with dignity and grace

last week (unlike Bill Bradley, who could summon neither), John McCain

has been the subject of widespread conversation among Democrats as the

man they admired but would not have supported had he won the Republican

nomination. One well-known lifelong Democratic woman put it this way: ’I

would have loved to date him, but I would never have married him.’



And now that the primary season has ended right on schedule (the pundits

said it would end March 7), and with the media ready to husband and

hoard (and sometimes invent) bits of information in the desperate hope

of coming up with news, it’s an appropriate time for PR pros to look

back and see how all this happened.



Perception beats substance every time, right? Wrong again. The

’compassionate conservative’ would beat the hard-right conservative on

the Republican side, so the analysts said. But G.W. Bush got rid of the

’compassionate’ tag just as soon as he ran into trouble and saw the need

to attract the Bob Jones crowd in South Carolina. PR went out the

window.



The result was a forced lame apology - after too many days - to Cardinal

O’Connor, and a live issue sure to cost Bush Catholic votes in

November.



And for the rest of ’compassion,’ forget it. The governor says his

position on campaign finance reform will be limited to trying to cripple

organized labor’s ability to contribute. And, confronted with the

scientific evidence that freed one in seven US death row convicts as

innocent, Governor Bush says only that all those executed in Texas,

including two women during his term, were guilty.



McCain, on the other hand, using very skillful PR advice, opened

campaign access to all the media, stressed his reform, anti-tobacco and

anti-gun credentials, and became the ’moderate’ overnight. And then was

swamped.



The moral of all this? Moderation in the pursuit of the nomination is no

virtue; extremism in seeking GOP voters is no vice.



The Democratic contest was even more topsy-turvy. Bradley, the ’hot’

candidate from the world of sports, would make wooden Al Gore seem

unpalatable to the party, it was said. But it was Bradley whose campaign

style was flat and uninteresting, while Gore came to life, earth tones

and all, and won all 16 primaries.



So the Democrats, the ’party of issues,’ went for style over substance

while the Republicans, to the delight of Democrats, closed ranks and

stuck to their issues, unpopular as they will prove to be



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