Showing Their Softer Sides
By Howard Kurtz
The presidential campaign is getting personal.
As Christmas approaches, the candidates are using advertising to warm up their images--posing with their families, dispensing holiday greetings and, in one case, recounting the search for a colleague's missing daughter.
The shift in tone is driven in part by the Iowa caucus taking place just two days after New Year's, but also by the candidates' determination to humanize themselves after months of hard-edged issue ads.
Sen. Barack Obama, posing with his wife and two daughters in front of a fireplace and Christmas tree, reinforces his coming-together message: "In this holiday season we are reminded that the things that unite us as a people are more powerful and enduring than anything that sets us apart. And we all have a stake in each other, in something larger than ourselves."
A sweater-clad Mike Huckabee, also in front of a tree, emphasizes the religious nature of the holiday, as befits a former Baptist preacher courting evangelical voters. "Are you about worn out of all the television commercials you've been seeing?" he says. "Mostly about politics. I don't blame you." Huckabee says it is nice to "just remember that what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ and being with our family and our friends."
Rudy Giuliani dresses up his standard positions as a list of holiday wishes: "I wish for peace with strength. Secure borders. A government that spends less than it takes in. Lower taxes for our businesses and families." But the former New York mayor injects a note of levity with a cameo appearance by Santa Claus, who erupts in ho-ho-ho at the former mayor's hope that all the candidates just get along.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has been running commercials featuring her mother and daughter, took a similar tack yesterday. With music from "Carol of the Bells," an ad shows her with gifts under her tree labeled "Universal Health Care," "Alternative Energy," "Bring the Troops Home" and so on. The punch line, such as it is: "Where did I put universal pre-K?"
Another tack for breaking through the static is to focus on the plight of individuals. Mitt Romney unveiled an unusually emotional ad yesterday in which a former business partner, Robert Gay, recounts what happened in 1996 when his 14-year-old daughter disappeared in New York for three days.
Romney, says Gay, "stepped forward to take charge. He closed the company and brought almost all our employees to New York. He said, 'I don't care how long it takes - we're going to find her.' He set up a command center and searched through the night. The man who helped save my daughter was Mitt Romney." That is a very different portrait than the former Massachusetts governor boasting about his experience as a venture capitalist.
John Edwards also tries to personalize his argument on health care by focusing on a man named James Lowe, born with a cleft palate, who could not speak for 50 years because he was unable to afford the needed surgery. "This is wrong," the former North Carolina senator says. "It is immoral. When are we going stop letting drug companies, insurance companies and their lobbyists run this country?"
Sen. John McCain's signature issue has long been the Iraq war, so it is hardly surprising that he would make an ad about recent military progress there. But the spot is framed as a testimonial to his character.
"One man warned us we were failing in Iraq, and told us how we could turn things around," the narrator says. "More troops and a different strategy. He took a lot of heat, but he stood by what he knew was right. Today that strategy is working." The strategy that McCain needs to work is for Republican voters to think of him not as a maverick but as a courageous truth-teller.
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