A hurdle for Democratic presidential hopefuls On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

October 31, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Washington A FILM CLIP of Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas making a campaign speech appeared on an NBC network news broadcast the other night, but only because he was speaking at Georgetown University here and covering the same topic President Bush discussed at atial nomination. They are still unknowns to most voters, and the television networks -- the prime purveyor of political news -- are paying so little attention to them that raising their recognition level is an uphill struggle.

To some degree, the problem is a function of the fact the campaign began so late while Democrats waited for the glow of the Persian Gulf war to fade. Over the summer and fall of 1987, seven Democratic candidates had held 13 debates, several of which received national television exposure on public and cable systems and heavy coverage from the networks. None of those debates was particularly memorable, but they did define some differences among the candidates and establish a rough pecking order.

But the Democratic imperative of getting themselves known also is a victim of economics. The television networks have cut back drastically on their coverage of presidential politics because they are operating with sharply reduced budgets. Thus, the best opportunity for any of the Democrats seems to be to do what Clinton did -- bring their campaigns to a place the networks can easily and inexpensively cover them, which means New York or Washington.

Meanwhile, President Bush continues to enjoy the full coverage any president can expect. And if he chooses to exploit that opportunity with de facto campaign events, the networks are not making any fine distinctions.

In the aftermath of the 1988 election, there was a flood of well-deserved criticism of the way the networks allowed the Bush managers to set the agenda for the campaign by putting their candidate in visually attractive setting irresistible to the cameras and by using the kind of political sloganeering that fit "sound bite" journalism. Network executives responded with hand-wringing and promises that things would be different this time around.

Don't bet on it. When President Bush drops in on an elementary school classroom in Maine to show he is an "education president," all the networks use the film. When he visits the Grand Canyon to show he is an "environmental president," the cameras faithfully follow. The network correspondents may raise questions in their reports about the validity of those labels, but for candidate Bush the pictures are what matters and they are political gold.

The Democrats now have several events on the schedule that may attract some network attention. They all will be appearing at the New Hampshire party convention this weekend, and most are scheduled for other joint appearances next month in Michigan, Iowa and South Dakota. But what they need -- and none is on the schedule this year -- is some nationally televised debate. Even one carried live only on public stations would attract some audience and provide clips for the networks.

At this point, the importance of building broad name recognition may be overstated. The campaigning for the New Hampshire primary next Feb. 18 is still at the stage in which the target audience is first the 3,000 to 4,000 Democratic activists

in the state. But it is also true that challengers to an incumbent president need to make themselves familiar figures with whom voters at large are reasonably comfortable. It is axiomatic in politics that voters recognize there is some risk involved in choosing an alternative to any incumbent, so anything that reduces that risk is important.

The Democrats still have time to achieve that goal. They will be competing in caucuses and primaries while President Bush will be getting a pass. The candidate who wins in New Hampshire or on Super Tuesday three weeks later can expect intense media attention. And these days a candidate can be transformed from unknown into household word in just a few days.

Right now, nonetheless, the Democrats are making little impact on the electorate. The differences among them are significant but apparent to few potential voters. There is not even enough recognition to permit valid opinion polls to measure how they are doing.

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