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Less may mean more, for now, in marathon presidential race

Updated:
Bush, Gore advised to work on subtly shaping images

First the good news: Presumptive presidential nominees George W. Bush and Al Gore have nearly eight weeks of campaigning for the fall election behind them.

The bad news: They have more than 25 weeks to go.

When Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore locked up their parties' nominations March 14, they stepped into what will be the longest presidential campaign in modern times. And with it comes a challenge: how to keep the public interested.

Expert advice ranges from "don't try" to "be inventive."

They could, for example, leak names of potential Cabinet appointees, introduce their running mates before the conventions, even agree to a "soft" debate setting, such as Larry King Live.

Most analysts, however, suggest that the candidates would be better off staying low-key for now, subtly shaping their images before the intensity of the fall campaign.

"If I were advising either one of them, it would be: Let sleeping dogs lie. People are going to get increasingly turned off if they are subjected to a steady stream of campaign messages at a time when there's nothing they can do about it," said Jarol Manheim, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University.

Others call this the first 24/7 election - 24 hours a day and seven days a week - because of spiraling media technologies. With the Internet, cable TV, satellites and radio talk, candidates can't just drop out of sight until the August national conventions.

Like performers in a daily soap opera, "they've got to keep their characters likable," said Robert Thompson, who teaches film and television at Syracuse University.

"Any Madison Avenue advertising person will tell you you've got to keep the brand name in the face of the consumer," Mr. Thompson said. But there's a fine line between maintaining some visibility and "the contempt that may come from overexposure," he said.

Cultivating support

What they can do, experts say, is use the time to ac-cen-tu-ate the positive and e-lim-i-nate the negative.

That means reinforcing favorable images - trustworthiness for Mr. Bush and experience for Mr. Gore - and inoculating against weaknesses - a lack of preparedness for Mr. Bush and lack of authenticity for Mr. Gore.

Between now and the national conventions, they can "plant seeds" that will be useful when the public begins to pay more attention, said Dr. Greg Thielemann, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Dallas.

"Each campaign needs to establish a pattern, almost subliminally, so that by the time the real negative attacks start after the conventions, there's a seed in the voters' minds," Dr. Thielemann said.

Repairs, make-overs

Sure, keep on bringing in the money. But, if you're Mr. Bush, wear a suit instead of a tux at a record-breaking Republican fund-raiser, so you don't look like a fat cat. If you're Mr. Gore, make it a boots-and-blue jeans event, to show your connection with regular folks.

Mr. Gore already has undergone one make-over, tossing his dark suits for more informal, earth-tone apparel.

Still, both candidates have some repair work to do, the image makers say.

"We need to see another dimension of Bush" - one that's not a "propped-up figure with a speech in front of him," said Merrie Spaeth, a Dallas consultant.

Any zany ideas?

"People forget this guy was a pilot. Maybe he should go off on maneuvers, fly to Kosovo," said Ms. Spaeth, a communications adviser in the Reagan White House who now heads Spaeth Communications.

He needs to take some risks, she said. "Running as a winner historically is a mistake."

As for Mr. Gore, California Democratic consultant Bill Carrick said he ought to "get back to how he's an innovative and intelligent thinker, get into more cutting-edge issues, such as technology and how it's good for the country, figure out some way to dramatize the importance of technology."

Tips for Bush

Mr. Bush, meanwhile, also needs to establish a persona of "intellectual gravity," said Mr. Manheim of George Washington University.

"I would be going back to school. I would be seen with all sorts of policy advisers . . . I would be taking advantage of this unique opportunity to continue preparing for the presidency . . . Do some foreign study."

"His image is that he's not fully enough prepared. So eliminate the trivia of the campaign for a couple of months. Prepare to be a leader, and then go out and be a candidate," Mr. Manheim suggested.

After embracing a big tax cut in the primaries and cozying up to religious conservatives in South Carolina, Mr. Bush needs to move to the middle to attract swing voters, the image specialists say.

Dr. Thielemann suggests taking some "moderating positions."

In fact, the Republican candidate is doing just that, methodically rolling out "compassionate conservative" policy positions each week.

He's unveiled plans for financing low-income housing, expanding medical care to poor and remote areas, offering tax credits for health insurance, redeveloping polluted industrial sites and improving education for minority students.

Advice for Gore

Mr. Gore, meanwhile, faces different problems - believability and likability.

Critics accused the vice president of pandering when he proposed massive campaign-finance reforms and when he veered from the Clinton administration on the Elián González residency question.

Ms. Spaeth suggested that Mr. Gore might benefit from a weeklong retreat, perhaps mountain-climbing, where he goes away and "looks deep inside himself and then lets us know what he sees."

She's also a big proponent of one-on-one marketing. That means campaigning "in small doses, at the local level."

Mr. Gore the Democrat seems to be doing what Ms. Spaeth, a Republican, recommends.

In various states over the last few weeks, he's been conducting "open meetings" with voters, hearing their concerns, answering their questions. He recently conducted a four-hour meeting with voters in Albuquerque, N.M., staying until every question was answered.

"The lesson from Iowa and New Hampshire, where Al Gore spent a great deal of time, was that people liked him more the more they saw him and heard him," said Gore press aide Chris Lehane.

VP's strategy

Whatever the image makers may recommend, critics say Mr. Gore has decided how he'll use this time: attacking the Texas governor's record on education, health insurance and the environment, and shooting holes in his proposals.

"The pattern is clearly established. He's going to attack everything George Bush says," said former GOP National Chairman Haley Barbour. "You're going to hear 'risky' tax plan every time he opens his mouth."

The Gore campaign believes pointing out inconsistencies is fair game and not necessarily destructive during this period, spokesman Doug Hattaway said.

And Mr. Gore has a parallel strategy, spending "quality time" in communities that he visits.

As part of his "school days," he has stayed overnight in the homes of teachers and spent hours in schools in states such as Ohio and Michigan, talking with everyone from principals to cafeteria workers, custodians and students.

"We're not just going in for a photo op," Mr. Hattaway said. The candidate is taking the time "to understand the issues faced by people in that community." Such events may not make the national news, but they get a lot of local coverage.

As for whether the public is even listening, that's another matter. "We may well be in a period of low public involvement," said Tom Patterson, director of the Vanishing Voter Project at Harvard University. "There just isn't much they can do about it."
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