Talk Shows Obligatory Campaign Stops

Monday, September 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — First he smooched Oprah Winfrey's cheek. Then, in a style more flattering than imitating, George W. Bush strolled onto the set of Regis Philbin's morning talk show dressed exactly like the host — in a matching shirt-and-tie combination.

The Republican presidential nominee and Democratic rival Al Gore may quibble over podium height and the brand of bottled water for their October debates, but they agree that talk shows can help spread their message to millions of television viewers — mostly women.

Gore started things off two weeks ago with his Sept. 11 appearance on Winfrey's Chicago-based program. Bush landed there on Sept. 19. In between, Gore visited with late-night talkers David Letterman and Jay Leno, and Bush flew to New York to chat on ``Live With Regis.''

On Tuesday, Gore attends an MTV town meeting with college students in Michigan, while Bush and his wife Laura are guests on CNN's ``Larry King Live.''

``By Bush going on Oprah, even the Republicans have recognized that warm and fuzzy is now necessary,'' said Bob Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, an independent research group. ``The Democrats had a lock on this means of communicating with the electorate.''

This newest stop on the campaign trail began with Bill Clinton in 1992, Lichter said.

After a bruising ''60 Minutes'' interview about his relationship with Gennifer Flowers, Clinton landed on Phil Donahue's talk show and saved his campaign. He followed with the talk-show equivalent of a Nixon-goes-to-China moment: playing the saxophone for Arsenio Hall.

``That really was a turning point,'' Lichter said. ``George Bush Senior remained distant and formal, running the old-fashioned way, when (Ross) Perot and Clinton were discovering you could broaden your appearance into the realm of pop culture.''

Few soils are more fertile with undecided voters. Philbin claims a daily audience of 5 million, and Winfrey reaches 22 million people a week — almost 80 percent of them women, surveys suggest. Gore now leads among women, according to the latest polls, and Bush is trying to catch up.

Millions more people watch Leno and Letterman. A January study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 28.5 percent of the public got campaign information from these late-night comedians. For those between the ages of 18 and 29, it was 47 percent.

``The people who are not looking for election news, but will stick with it if it's on Oprah, are highly prized,'' Lichter said. ``By definition, (these) uninformed voters are least likely to have made up their minds.''

The Pew study also found that 14 percent of Americans would vote for someone if Winfrey supported that candidate.

Thus, Gore holds cue cards for Leno and running mate Joseph Lieberman breaks into song (``My Way'') for Conan O'Brien and, tapping his firsthand knowledge of Jewish humor, promises ``No bull, no pork.'' Gore also wants to take his schtick to Philbin and Rosie O'Donnell's show.

``We think presidents have to be funny now,'' sniffed Henry Graff, a presidential historian at Columbia University. ``When I think of great speeches, Herbert Lehman, and on back to Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, they didn't have all this funniness.''

Lichter defended the candidates.

``They get to present themselves as human beings instead of combatants in the war between politicians and the media,'' he said.

Graff said the only person behaving like a proper candidate is Republican vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney, a regular guest on the Sunday morning news shows. He does not plan to follow Bush and Gore onto the daytime and nighttime talk-show circuits.

``Well, I can't sing. I got kicked out of choir in the third grade. I suppose I could go do stupid pet tricks or something,'' Cheney said on ``Fox News Sunday.'' Moreover, he said, he hasn't been invited.