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22 Oct 2004 08:48
Welcome to “Be a Regular Guy,” the new reality show for United States presidential candidates.
John Kerry swaps his senator’s suit for khaki camouflage and hunter’s rifle to go on a goose hunt, and lures cameramen into his hotel room to snap him rooting for the Boston Red Sox.
George Bush meanwhile often leaves the free world to fend for itself and heads to his Texas ranch in a wide-brimmed cowboy hat, biceps rippling as he clears brushwood or bumps along in a pickup truck.
Both White House hopefuls, Yale-educated millionaires from establishment families, want to be seen as just like the Americans who will decide their fate on November 2.
The result is a parade of staged photo-ops, the latest of which was Kerry’s hunting trip in misty Ohio early on Thursday.
Kerry and his party blasted at a flock of honking geese, out of sight of cameramen summoned to witness the spectacle.
Moments later, he emerged from a cornfield, flashing a thumbs up, hand covered in the blood of a downed bird.
To the reporters who cover Kerry daily, the event seemed staged—but the image would garner valuable coverage on millions of television screens.
The goal: to show conservative Bush-leaning males, mulling a change of allegiance in tough economic times, that Kerry was just like them—not a starchy, verbose, French-speaking intellectual—but a regular guy who loves to get out in the fresh air with a rifle.
Kerry, often depicted as the kind of aloof elitist many heartland Americans despise, has made strenuous efforts to soften his image.
Some experts think his perceived lack of likeability may be one of the reasons why the race is still deadlocked.
Many polls show a majority of voters ready for change, but suggest that they have not yet settled on Kerry as their man.
Americans are often criticised for a tendency to vote for the most likeable not the most competent candidate—likeability problems are one reason why Al Gore is deemed to have lost the 2000 election.
But the trend can be excused by the fact that US presidents serve a broader role than a European prime minister for instance, serving at times of crisis as a kind of national spiritual guide.
To win the hearts of a crowd, Kerry often refers to a local high school basketball or football team.
He draws on the unlikely success of his hometown Boston Red Sox baseball team and at 60, remains a talented athlete.
Kerry skated with retired ice hockey pros in images which may appeal to voters in wintry northern swing states like Minnesota, where Kerry was on Thursday night, and New Hampshire.
Before boarding his plane, he will often toss a football or baseball with a member of his Secret Service detail or a reporter.
But occasionally Kerry’s common touch fails him.
In Wisconsin this month, the senator said he could not wait for “a beer and a brat” German sausage.
“Brort” the crowd roared back at him, with the correct local pronunciation of the German bratwurst, or fried sausage.
On an earlier visit to the state, Kerry referred to the home of the fabled Green Bay football team as Lambert Field—only one problem, every fan in America knows the Packers “frozen tundra” is Lambeau Field.
Bush has been more successful in toning down his aristocratic lineage.
The electoral defeat of his father George Bush in 1992 was put down partly to a lack of common touch, exemplified when he glanced at his watch during a town-hall debate and marvelled at a supermarket scanner.
His son carved out a square jawed, plain-spoken political persona, rooted in fierce self-discipline and his adopted home of Texas—which has framed his administration’s approach to policy.
Bush is best with a friendly crowd, softening speeches dripping with sarcasm with winks, smirks and comic timing.
And unlike Kerry, who has never met a sentence he does not want to lengthen, Bush exemplifies American bluntness.
His apparent disinterest in foreign culture and history, reflected in foreign trips where he can flit through six countries in a week, earns disdain from Europeans—but plays well in the US heartland.
Perhaps the signature image of his presidency unfolded when Bush addressed a cheering crowd from the rubble of the World Trade Centre in New York after the September 11 attacks, arm around a fire chief, megaphone in hand.
“I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked down these buildings are going to hear all of us soon.”
Those words caught the mood as America’s grief turned to thoughts of revenge, summed up by the president in a perfect “regular guy” moment. - Sapa-AFP
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