Saturday, December 22, 2007

"Americans want 'real deal' for next president"

Toronto Star:
It's the word you hear in drafty Iowa gyms where voters gather to shop for a candidate, on the cable news outlets where the analysts ponder the imponderables, in the endless drip, drip, drip of email endorsements.


It has become the buzzword of the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, and the authenticity test appears to be shaping the race.
The next American president will have to be – or perceived by voters to be – the real deal. He or she must be consistent and appear to believe what they are saying, without the political artifice and calculation that savvy voters in Iowa and New Hampshire so easily reject.

Authenticity and character have always been strong drivers of campaign success, but four years ago at this point Iowa Democrats relied on electability above all else when they propelled John Kerry to their party's nomination.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan's perceived competence helped him defeat incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter and in 1988 vice-president George H.W. Bush beat one-time Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis by promising a "third term" of the Reagan administration. In 1992, Bill Clinton parlayed his considerable political charm and skill into victory over Bush by focusing on the economy.

In this year's Republican race, authenticity appears to have fuelled the rise of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and is behind the rebound in New Hampshire of Arizona Senator John McCain.

It is this same lack of authenticity that continues to weigh down ex-Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and his flag-of-convenience conservative conversions and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani with his personal peccadilloes and myriad business links that don't quite pass the smell test.

It has become the great equalizer. It explains how Huckabee can spend $325,000 in Iowa, yet surpass Romney, who spent $7 million.

Among Democrats, Barack Obama, the most gifted orator on the campaign trail, appears to be passing the authenticity test over the impersonal, machinelike campaign of Hillary Clinton and the whiff of hypocrisy in the John Edwards campaign.

The authenticity test is steeped in American political lore.

Carter used it to win the presidency for the Democrats in 1976, George W. Bush passed the "who would you like to have a beer with?" test over Al Gore in the 2000 race.

But authenticity appears to have eclipsed other character issues such as experience, or policy issues like the war in Iraq or the economy as Americans gird for 28 presidential primary and caucus votes over the next six weeks.

In Iowa, home of the nation's first caucus on Jan. 3, Huckabee is drawing on his background as a pastor and a radio evangelist to make voters feel he "is talking only to you," says Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford.

"Mitt Romney has a certain plastic element to him, sounding like he's giving a PowerPoint presentation."

Obama leaves voters feeling as if each was the only one in the room, but his authenticity stems much from the early confessional he published admitting to an aimless youth that included marijuana and cocaine use.

Unlike Bill Clinton, who once claimed he smoked marijuana but didn't inhale, Obama admits he inhaled – "that was the point," he said – further burnishing his authenticity credentials.

But to be authentic, you have to have others tell voters you are authentic. You can't say it yourself.

"We need someone who is authentic, someone who will inevitably make mistakes, just like every president going back to George Washington, but someone who is themselves and authentic," said documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, endorsing Obama.

"I really believe a lot of (voters) are swinging over to Mike Huckabee, because they see that he is an authentic guy, and that he is the real deal," says legendary tough guy actor Chuck Norris.

So it is inevitable that Edwards is asked about his authenticity as the nation's poverty-fighter as he receives his $400 haircut, builds a giant family mansion in North Carolina and works for a hedge fund.

When the authenticity filter is applied to McCain, attempting one more comeback at 71, it becomes a question of principle.

When he tells voters that torture should never be part of American policy, it conjures images of his life story, the most compelling on the campaign trail, and his potentially soul-destroying 5 1/2-year stint as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

He has bucked party conventions on immigration, a hot-button issue on which Romney, Huckabee and Giuliani have all moved to placate the base.

While McCain has emphasized border security in recent weeks, he stood firm as contributions dried up and his campaign crashed earlier as he advocated a temporary guest-worker program and a pathway to citizenship for the country's 12 million illegal immigrants.

He also backed the Bush troop surge plan for Iraq – so fervently, some Democrats began calling it the "McCain doctrine" – when the move was highly unpopular.

Yet, as voters are looking at him again in a remarkably fluid Republican race, the surge, by almost any measure, has been a success and McCain has been vindicated.

McCain began airing a campaign ad in New Hampshire Wednesday, trying to play to this strength.

"One man warned us we were failing in Iraq, and told us how we could turn things around," the voice-over says.

"He took a lot of heat, but he stood by what he knew was right. Today that strategy is working."

McCain then says: "I didn't go to Washington to win Mr. Congeniality. I went there to serve my country."

He has picked up a spate of newspaper endorsements, and almost all go to the authenticity issue.

"In an age when too many candidates are driven by polls and focus groups, fashioning and refashioning their `core' beliefs, McCain is a man of unwavering conviction and integrity," the Boston Herald said.

Romney, the man derided as having "anchorman" hair and being a late conservative convert on the road to Des Moines, has big authenticity problems.

In recent days, he has mischaracterized a National Rifle Association endorsement and admitted he didn't really see, as he claimed in a major speech, his late father, former Michigan governor George Romney, march with Martin Luther King.

Maybe that's why the former Massachusetts governor has begun to tear up on the trail, getting emotional on Meet the Press twice in one interview, once discussing the 1978 change in his Mormon religion to allow blacks into the priesthood and again talking about seeing bodies coming back from Iraq.

"I have five boys of my own. I imagine what it would be like to lose a son."

It might be why this week he began running an ad in New Hampshire, recounting his role in the search for a colleague's 14-year-old daughter who went missing in New York in 1996.

But Goldford issues a warning to both Romney and Clinton, who are now trying to prove their authenticity with ads.

"It only works if it doesn't look obvious," he said.
Howie P.S.: I'm not sure I accept the premise of this story. It would be nice if we had a campaign that adopted as it's tag line, "Keepin' it real!" Warning: somebody said, "if you can fake sincerity, you've really got it made." Remember Ronald Reagan?

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