Can Obama Escape the Kerry Trap?

Article excerpt

We already know Barack Obama isn't much of a bowler, and hunting seems like a stretch. Windsurfing is definitely out--as John Kerry learned, it's not exactly how the average Joe kicks back after a tough week at work. So just how will Obama deflect those charges of snooty liberal elitism? It may be as simple as not trying so hard.

By early March four years ago, conservative groups were already running ads against Sen. John Kerry. Those ads played up Kerry's inability to come across as an Everyman. One of the earliest attacks--bankrolled by the conservative group Citizens United--summed up what would become one of President George Bush's main themes. Modeled on Mastercard's famous ad campaign, the spot cataloged Kerry's expenses, from designer shirts and a $1 million luxury yacht to "four lavish mansions" and a beachfront estate valued at over $30 million. "Another rich liberal elitist from Massachusetts who claims he's a man of the people? Priceless," the ad concluded.

Right from the start, conservatives set the political image trap for Kerry, and he walked right into it. To appeal to rural working-class voters in Ohio, the candidate donned a hunting jacket and wielded a shotgun. The result was ridicule from his opponents and charges of phoniness from the chattering class.

Of the photo-op: "It should never have happened," says Bob Shrum, Kerry's third and final campaign manager and the man who has absorbed more criticism than perhaps anyone else for Kerry's missteps. "As soon as I saw him in that jacket, I thought, 'This really isn't a good idea.'"

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It was far from the worst of Kerry's mistakes, but it was emblematic of a seemingly deeper identity crisis for the Kerry campaign-one from which the candidate was never able to emerge.

Kerry's attempts to prove that he belonged in "Guyville," as Bush strategist Tucker Eskew termed it at the time, were met again and again with failure as the media pounced on every slip that suggested Kerry was more comfortable at Harvard or Berkeley than anywhere in-between.

Kerry went to a Boston Red Sox game where he got the name of the team's top slugger wrong. Worse, he went to Green Bay, Wisc., where he called one of the most storied stadiums in sports "Lambert Field." In a much odder recreational choice, Kerry went windsurfing off the coast of Nantucket, giving the Bush campaign a great visual for one of its most effective attack ads, which dubbed Kerry a flip-flopper.

Granted, most of Kerry's mistakes were aesthetic--like the furor that erupted when he ordered Swiss on his cheesesteak at a famous Philadelphia food stand--and had little to do with issues or policy positions. But it was painfully obvious that Kerry was going out of his way to shed his image problem, and in the process he only accentuated it.

"There were times when [Kerry] made it pretty easy," says Eskew, who was senior strategist for President Bush in 2004 and a former White House deputy communications director. "But you've seen this in every candidate the Democrats have nominated since 1988. It's a tendency to reward and reflect the liberal elites who drive a lot of the intellectual debate in this country, and when exposed, it drives middle Americans crazy."

Now Republicans are once again setting the trap, this time for Barack Obama, who they hope will be tempted to take the bait. Given his weak performance among white working-class voters in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania during the primary season, Obama will undoubtedly work to appeal to that constituency, and Republicans will try to spin it as pandering. Whether or not it works is largely up to Obama, says image consultant Evangelia Souris.

"If you have an image problem, one of the worst things you can do is call attention to it by actively trying to change it," says Souris, who has consulted for presidential candidates, both in the U.S. …

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