Words may change, but messages don't

As Clinton and Obama make adjustments, their basic platforms will not deviate, PR experts say

The narrowing of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination has obviously drawn the campaigns of Sens. Barack Obama (IL) and Hillary Clinton (NY) into starker contrast. But while cross-talk between the two may have become more heated, their basic messaging won't change substantially in the coming weeks, communications pros say.

For better or for worse, Obama continues to talk more generally of hope and change, with less emphasis about specific solutions than Clinton, who emphasizes her ability to lead from "day one." If the raft of media articles on Obama's new momentum are to be believed, that emphasis on "change" has been a winner for him. And the Clinton camp appears to think so, too, judging by its new efforts to attack Obama's rhetoric.

On the eve of the February 19 Wisconsin primary and Hawaii caucus - expected at press time to be triumphs for Obama, thus giving him victories in 10 consecutive states (if only a fractional lead in delegates) - the Clinton campaign got more aggressive in its attacks on what it claims is the empty rhetoric of Obama, alerting reporters to his use of the same basic speech as booster Gov. Deval Patrick (D-MA).

The Obama campaign replied essentially, "So what?" It noted that Clinton in her
campaign appearances has employed stock Obama phrases such "fired up" and "ready to go." In fact, both candidates are adopting some of the other's messaging, with Obama beginning to emphasize specific policy initiatives more, while Clinton speaks more about "change" in general.

Not much about what candidates say on the stump is ever new. Grassroots Enterprise president and Obama supporter John Hlinko says accusing the Illinois senator of cribbing a generic theme like "change" is a bit like accusing Clinton of copying Mr. Rourke from Fantasy Island because her home page says, "Welcome." What translates into victory, Hlinko adds, isn't really the originality of rhetoric, but how it resonates.

"She's trying to reinforce the idea that, 'If you want someone who can be president and really focus on the details, that's what I am,'" Hlinko explains. "I think she's been trying to get more inspirational in her messaging, but she is not as comfortable."

Still, what voters have seen of the candidates so far is what they will continue to get, says Ruder Finn MD Neil Dhillon, a former Clinton administration staffer, though not a current advocate of either contender.

"If you ask the person on the street what they think of Obama, the answer is: 'He's got so much passion and energy.'" Dhillon notes. "But what does he really believe in? Obviously, it's very helpful to him that he opposed the war from the beginning. But other than that, if you look at healthcare or the economy, he's not really talking about that. If you look at [Clinton], there's more substance to her public policy."

Perception about support for a candidate always helps foster additional support for that person, notes Virilion SVP of public affairs Ken Deutsch. Obama's YouTube channel has more than twice as many subscribers as Clinton's and over 12 times as many page views. And often, higher counts attract greater viewing by others, who seek out what's most popular.

"It reinforces the positive message Obama's campaign has had about a building groundswell," adds Deutsch, who describes himself as a Clinton supporter. "There's a self-fulfilling prophesy as to how that works."

There's no telling yet whether the Clinton campaign's emphasis on policy will overcome that groundswell, Dhillon explains, adding that the New York senator apparently will stay that course. The same goes for Obama.

"Obama won't deviate much from what has worked for him," Dhillon says. "So you'll probably see more of [Clinton] rolling out these plans - more than Obama - because he's on a rock-concert tour right now."

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