Monday, December 12, 2005

''Gregoire works on bulldog image''

"Gov. Christine Gregoire, a tough, battle-scarred lawyer, earned her stripes brawling with Big Tobacco and other political tigers.

But some of her advisers and top aides, armed with results from four focus groups with voters last month, want to begin softening the aggressive image that helped put her on the map.

Gregoire rejects the notion that she needs a full-blown “makeover,” but she and her communications team readily acknowledge that the governor’s office needs to do a better job of promoting her accomplishments and presenting her softer side.

So far, the changes are subtle, and not full-fledged rebranding.

The office has re-christened the governor “Chris” in her news releases — her nickname rather than the more formal “Christine” she’s used during her decades in public life. They’re making liberal use of her folksy husband Mike, two overachieving daughters, and even the first dog, Franz, who now has his own wine label.

The governor and first gentleman dressed up as characters from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” to entertain kids for trick-or-treating at the mansion, inviting photographers in to catch the playful chief executive teasing kids and passing out chocolate bars.

The office recently published family recipes and began a folksy e-mail newsletter from “Chris” with as much emphasis on family and photos as on the official government stuff.

The first family has opened the mansion to large numbers of visitors, and red Washington wine is flowing again.

And they’ve freed up her schedule to put her on the road — a lot — for policy meetings, city tours, school visits and photo ops. She’s relaxed, smiling more, and sometimes shelves her trademark intensity to include laughter, colloquialisms and references to her com-pelling life story.

Tom Fitzsimmons, the governor’s chief of staff, said the rough, prolonged election worsened the public-relations challenge.

“People have an image of her as formal, stiff, focused, disciplined and targeted and intense,” he said. “That comes through. But she is also a warm, accessible and at times amazingly joking person. We have to get that across.”

The state Democratic Party, hoping to bolster Gregoire’s chronically low poll numbers, commissioned focus groups last month to get feedback from “real people,” including how the governor comes across.

“Her staff in Olympia needs to do a better job of communicating who she is,” said state party chairman Paul Berendt. “She needs to be who she is, but there is no harm in showing her to be a well-rounded person with a family. People do want a comprehensive idea of who she is.”

The focus groups, financed by the party at a cost of $18,000 and conducted by Portland pollster Lisa Grove, were part of an effort to help. More are planned each year, Berendt said.

Berendt said the Gregoire focus groups, representing unaffiliated voters from the Puget Sound region and the rest of the state, sam-pled male and female views on issues and about Gregoire’s performance and image.

Berendt refused to discuss what participants thought of Gregoire’s tough-guy style. The Democratic Governors’ Association said most governors regularly consult pollsters and use focus groups.

Election baggage

After three vote counts and a half-year battle in the courts, Gregoire won the nation’s closest gubernatorial contest by 133 votes out of 2.8 million cast. She ran an aggressive center-left agenda in the Legislature, including the biggest gasoline-tax increase in state history.

Voters upheld the gasoline-tax decision last month, but Gregoire’s poll numbers have yet to improve.

“She has quite an anvil she’s dragging around,” said independent pollster Stuart Elway. Many conservatives haven’t forgiven her for the perceived “stolen” election and she pursued a partisan agenda while not easing her hard-edged, hard-charging image, he and other analysts said.

Pollster David Johnson, who runs the GOP firm Strategic Vision in Atlanta, said Gregoire has one of the lowest ratings in the country.

“A lot can happen in three years, but traditionally, when an incumbent has ratings this low, they never seem to recover,” he said.

His December poll put Gregoire’s job approval rating at a dismal 37 percent.

“They’ll try to make a New Gregoire, but it won’t work,” said Republican State Chairman Chris Vance. “You only get one chance to make a first impression. The six-month election ordeal was her defining moment. Dino Rossi was decent, fair and optimistic. She was petulant and stubborn.”

The governor, meanwhile, sounds skeptical about efforts to polish her rough edges.

“Can we do a better job of getting the word out? Of course,” Gregoire said. “But a makeover? I’m not doing it. This is me.”

Gregoire concedes her job performance numbers are dreadful, but said her personal favorability numbers are slowly improving.

Fitzsimmons and other Gregoire insiders said they’ll work to free up the more playful and approachable side of the governor they know. Getting out of the Capitol more will help, they said.

Gregoire must be careful not to overdo any makeover, Elway said. Gimmicks backfire, he said.

“Focus groups can help you frame your message and present it in a way that people get. But you don’t want to be seen as changing your personality because of some focus group,” he said."-David Ammons' AP story.
Being a woman and a Democrat, you know they are going to "brand" you, in both senses of the word.

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