Candidates must excel at head game to win White House

October 17, 2006|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner's surprising decision to drop out of the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination marathon disappointed the party's moderates. His reasons revealed a weakness that dooms most presidential hopefuls: He showed a concern for something besides winning.

Concern for kids and kin is a fine quality in most human beings, but professional political handlers will tell you that it only gets in the way of a presidential campaign.

To paraphrase a drill sergeant's advice from my Army days: If the campaign wants you to have a family, it will issue you one.

In every other way, Mr. Warner appeared to have all of the ingredients for a strong presidential run. He was a successful red-state governor with strong appeal among swing voters in NASCAR America, who Democrats want to lure back.

But his noble-sounding announcement that he did not want to put his "real life" on hold for the next couple of years while his eldest daughter prepares for college reveals his weakness. Today's big-league contenders don't put their real life on hold to run for president. Running is their real life.

It took that kind of deeply felt, single-minded determination for Bill Clinton, for example, to keep going despite the Gennifer Flowers scandal during the 1992 New Hampshire primary campaign. It took the same kind of determination for George W. Bush to keep going after New Hampshire's 2000 primary. Each man lost his primary but persevered to claw his way to the presidency.

You need that major-league level of desire to handle the national "freak show." That's what campaign journalists Mark Halperin of ABC News and John F. Harris of The Washington Post call the national bare-knuckle political culture that emphasizes personal attacks and ideological extremism. Their new book The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008, examines the strategies that brought Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton to power and could guide a future presidential campaign by U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The freak show has not grown by accident, the authors find. It's the result of an elaborate psychological warfare, a "head game" that both sides play, not only to win support but also to demoralize the other side and throw them off their game.

Mr. Halperin speculated that Mr. Clinton's recent show of anger during a Fox News Channel interview with Chris Wallace probably was an effort to "send that psychological signal of strength" to his fellow Democrats. Mr. Halperin's not alone in that speculation, but it will be hard for Democrats to be confident about their message until they actually have one. So far, polls show Democrats as well positioned to take the House and maybe even the Senate, based largely on Republican stumbles. In preparation for the next presidential sweepstakes, though, the party still sounds squishy on big defining issues such as Iraq, health care and national security.

Are Republicans better at that head game? They've had a good start, helped along by such role models as conservative talk-show hosts, who sound relentlessly confident whether they know what they're talking about or not.

If the power of positive thinking can move mountains, as I believe it can, Mr. Bush's simply stated, unnuanced, bumper-sticker certainty about his positions, despite any annoyingly contrary facts, does more than provide grist for late-night TV comics. It can also move polls his way. Viewers may not remember all you're trying to say, but they'll always remember how you said it.

Just as the power of positive political thinking can help you, its sudden absence can unravel you.

Amid the House page scandal and an unpopular war, Republican incumbents do not look comfortable. Yet, oddly, neither do the Democrats, accustomed as they are to having defeats snatched out of the jaws of victory.

Besides, for many, this midterm election is only a prelude to the big game, the 2008 presidential race. Mrs. Clinton and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona are better positioned than the other contenders, both in name recognition and experience. But their chances will be decided largely by how well they put their heads into the game.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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