|Jan 16, 2008 3:02 pm
||You're only as likable as your last sound-bite
|| CAMPAIGNS are often influenced by a simple question: Does a candidate seem likable?
Bob Dole suffered in the 1988 primaries when he snarled that George H.W. Bush should stop lying about his record.
Al Gore handily outpointed George W. Bush on the issues in the 2000 presidential debates, but his performance in the first left the lingering impression of a supercilious know-it-all.
It's already part of the campaign narrative that Hillary Clinton's likable moments helped her defy the polls and beat Barack Obama in New Hampshire.
Her gentle and funny response to a debate question noting that voters liked Obama more than her and her show of emotion on the campaign trail helped make a sometimes robotic candidate seem very human.
Meanwhile, Obama's attempt at debate humor - "You're likable enough" - came off as a gratuitous shot.
There's a lesson there for both candidates, but ironically (at least given the Granite State outcome), I think it's mostly one the Clinton operation needs to internalize. That campaign has too often seemed petty as it has gone after a rival whose surprisingly strong showing has shredded Clinton's onetime aura of inevitability.
We've just witnessed another apparent reference, albeit veiled, to Obama's youthful drug use, this one by Robert Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television. Although Johnson has insisted that he was referring to Obama's work as a community organizer, his actual words make that contention pretty hard to buy.
Before that, we saw a direct reference to Obama's high school drug use by Bill Shaheen, once the co-chairman of Clinton's New Hampshire campaign. Shaheen resigned - but pollster Mark Penn used the same incident to mention cocaine use on MSNBC's "Hardball."
Then, of course, we had the Clinton campaign pointing to news reports of Obama's kindergarten and elementary school essays about hoping to become president someday. Clinton officials insisted that was meant as a joke, but it certainly wasn't presented like one, appearing as it did in a broader e-mail research document whose purpose was to argue that Obama had long harbored presidential plans.
On Monday, the Obama campaign organized a convincing conference call with Illinois abortion-rights leaders to respond to the Clinton camp's allegations that he had been less than courageous on the issue because he had voted "present" a number of times in the Illinois Legislature. Obama's present votes were part of the strategy by the abortion-rights community, they said.
Those votes became an issue when the Clinton campaign sent around a mailer in New Hampshire that highlighted them and described Obama as "unwilling to take a stand on choice," according to a Concord Monitor account.
Then, when Obama's campaign responded with prerecorded telephone calls attesting to his record, the Clinton campaign set up a conference call with Kathy Sullivan, Clinton's campaign co-chairperson, who accused the Obama campaign of violating New Hampshire's law.
Why? Because his calls apparently reached some people on a do-not-call list. And because state law says such calls must identify their origin within 30 seconds, whereas the Obama call took 38 seconds to do so.
Frankly, the allegation was enough to make one groan - particularly since the Monitor reported that the statute in question probably didn't even apply to presidential primaries.
As her husband had in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton, appearing on "Meet the Press" on Sunday, seemed determined to diminish Obama's stand against the war, arguing that since he's been in the Senate, he has on several occasions voted to fund it - as though that somehow negates his original opposition.
Now, the Obama campaign has hardly been faultless. For example, chief strategist David Axelrod used the recent assassination of Benazir Bhutto to criticize Clinton's judgment in voting for the Iraq war resolution. Obama's campaign has compiled a memo of comments by the Clintons or their surrogates that it considers racially insensitive, a memo which has made its way onto the Internet. And on Sunday, Michelle Obama tried to portray Bill Clinton's "fairy tale" remark, directed at Obama's opposition to the Iraq war, as belittling his entire campaign.
Still, my sense is that Clinton's side has been the worst offender.
Clinton has said that New Hampshire helped her find her voice - and her personal performance there clearly made voters feel better about her. But she and her campaign need to be careful, or the very candidate who benefited from likability in New Hampshire may find that voters elsewhere don't end up feeling the same way.
By Scot Lehigh, Boston Globe Columnist, January 16, 2008
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Steve MacDowall, publisher of the Thursday File
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