ANALYSIS: Candidates find it tough to stand out in CA recall race

The CA recall threatens to become a media circus, where the rules of communications apply to neither politicians nor stars in the race to replace Davis.

The CA recall threatens to become a media circus, where the rules of communications apply to neither politicians nor stars in the race to replace Davis.

California is a land of dreams. Lieutenant Gov. Cruz Bustamante dreams of being the first Latino governor. Arnold Schwarzenegger dreams of being the first action-adventure governor. And Larry Flynt dreams of being the first hard-core pornography governor. Nearly 200 candidates in the gubernatorial recall election against Gov. Gray Davis (D) are doing their own California dreamin'. And the dream of becoming governor of the world's fifth-largest economy has attracted media attention from Japan to Sweden, and made the Golden State both the butt of jokes and a political fascination at the same time. But with a two-month election under intense media scrutiny, will anyone's message be heard? Will anyone care about pundit-turned-candidate Arianna Huffington's stance on healthcare, or state Sen. Tom McClintock's ideas about the environment? Will former child star Gary Coleman's plans for closing the budget deficit - if he has any - ever be heard? "It's going to be very tough for anyone to get their message heard, especially for the top two or three candidates," says John Segale, SVP and GM of Fleishman-Hillard's Sacramento office. "There's only so much oxygen in the room." "The candidates' [communications] tactics will vary considerably," explains Doug Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council. "The most fascinating thing about this is that we'll see a Cliffs Notes version of a gubernatorial election." Estelle Saltzman, president of communications consultancy Runyon Saltzman & Einhorn, thinks the best a candidate can do is distinguish him or herself by showing insight into the political process. She says she hopes people realize that sending a novice into the governor's office is like "sending out a race-car driver who has never driven the track. So someone like Bustamante needs to stress that he understands what is going on, and that he knows how to deal with the issues." But this isn't a typical election, and the candidates won't be facing typical voters. Segale says he's received several calls from people asking how they can register in time to vote. "The people voting won't be regular voters," he says. "We're going to see a lot of people who haven't voted before. These are people who don't follow issues or politics. A deep understanding of the issues may not resonate with them." Gregory Payne, director of the Center for Ethics in Political and Health Communication at Emerson College, agrees. He says California is not a political state like Massachusetts, and that in California the public has a disdain for politicians. "The more expertise a candidate has, the more jaded the voters could be," says Payne, who was a speechwriter for former LA Mayor Tom Bradley. "People seem to want a fresh start. In politics, we've seen politicians move toward this mix between image and fact. So, I'm not so sure Schwarzenegger will go past the sound bites and phrases." So far he hasn't. Schwarzenegger has been light on details, aside from promising to "pump up Sacramento." And while the political media is a whole different animal from the entertainment press, Schwarzenegger is holding his ground against the first onslaught of criticism and demand for details from the press and Democrats. "The media will hold his feet to the fire," adds Payne. "But that could also backfire if the media are too hostile. Short of some discovery that he's into child pornography, it's Schwarzenegger's race to lose." Turning popularity into messages One way to leverage that celebrity, whether the candidate is Schwarzenegger or Huffington, is to redirect that popularity to key message points, says Morris Reid, founding partner and MD of public affairs firm Westin Rinehart Group. "Arnold doesn't need to worry about people knowing him. He needs to worry about being taken seriously as a candidate." But he won't have to do much, asserts Pinkham. While no one sees Schwarzenegger as a treasure trove of public-policy insight, all he has to do "is show there's more to him than meets the eye," says Pinkham. This can be a rudimentary understanding of the issues, as well as his abilities as a moderate, open-minded consensus builder. But Reid disagrees. "Once we get away from the wow factor, the media will focus on the real problems facing the state. And Schwarzenegger will have to come up with a plan. This isn't the paparazzi. These are real journalists." Robert Deen, GM of Ogilvy PR Worldwide's Sacramento office, predicts that the election, with such a short time span, will focus more on image and who can connect with voters. Which means seasoned veterans such as Bustamante and McClintock have to focus on their records, trumpet the success they've had during their tenure, and pray that the voters are doing more than voting against the political establishment. But if any of the candidates want to be in the center ring of this circus, whether their focus is image or public policy, they'll need to pick just one message and "pound it, pound it, pound it," advises Steve Aaron, VP of PR at The Neiman Group. "The candidates don't have time to multitask in just two months. They will need to stick with one message if they want to get through the clutter. You have to reach so many people in such a short period of time." That's what Brian Tracy intends to do. The long-shot candidate, who is a motivational business speaker, is also running, and realizes that he faces better-known opponents. "I think we're going to see a certain level of media exhaustion with some of the candidates who are getting attention now, and that's when I'll be able to attract more attention," says Tracy, who adds that he will focus his message on wanting to turn California from the "most business-hostile state in the union to the most business- and job-friendly. "I've already had some television and radio interviews, and that will continue," he adds. "I'm going to reach out to my connections, and online. If you think of this as a marathon with a lot of runners, I intend to inch forward into the front group of runners." Issues versus star power Whether voters will want to focus on the issues rather than star power and platitudes remains to be seen. Some prognosticators argue that it's wise for candidates to focus on issues at the forefront of the electorate such as the state's budget woes, which is the main reason they're ready to dump Davis. As for Schwarzenegger's meteoric rise to the top of the political food chain, it probably has more to do with the fact that many voters - especially first-time voters - are looking for someone who will make them feel good about California again. "People aren't feeling good about the direction of the state," says Aaron. "They want someone who will make them feel good again." So the collective wisdom about what will transpire over the next two months is scattershot. California is facing an unprecedented political circus, and all rules, including those regarding how to communicate, go out the window. And whether the candidate, media, and public focus on platitudes or policy, Reid hopes one issue doesn't get lost. "California is really in dire straits, and the impact is going to be felt nationally," says Reid. "There's the saying, 'As goes California, so does the rest of the nation.' Everyone needs to take a deep breath and look at why California is in this predicament. If the candidates, media, and voters don't focus on what matters, then this will be a tremendous disservice to California and the rest of the nation."

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