Take a licking, keep on ticking

Candidates battle germs, greasy diets, long hours

Election 2008

May 13, 2008|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,Sun Reporter

The race for the White House is dirty business. Really.

The campaign season that continues today with the West Virginia primary has been especially long, particularly for Democratic Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton -- a physical endurance test that includes thousands of germy handshakes, greasy chicken dinners, long hours and heavy reliance on the vocal cords.

This is also the era of YouTube and 24-hour news channels to document every grimace, hacking cough and mental slip-up, and a time when baby boomers and young new voters expect their candidates to be pictures of agelessness, as many of them envision themselves.

Physically at least, the candidates have held up pretty well for the most part, leaving some observers impressed.

"For candidates, campaigning is like living in a giant petri dish full of germs, shaking thousands of hands of people who have been blowing or picking their noses, changing wet or dirty diapers or scratching God knows what," said Charles E. Cook Jr., publisher of The Cook Political Report and a political analyst for National Journal. "It's a wonder that they live through it."

The candidates' specific means of coping aren't totally known.

One clue comes from a widely circulated excerpt from Obama's book The Audacity of Hope: President Bush is said to have taken a dollop of hand sanitizer from a staffer after shaking Obama's hand. Bush then said, "Good stuff. Keeps you from getting colds." Obama reported he began using it. Clinton, too.

Despite its endorsement from health professionals, some politicians, including former presidential contender and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, still refuse to use the gel disinfectant, contending that its use is condescending to voters.

No matter the precautions, some candidates do fall victim to the stress and the germs. Former Republican candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani spent a night during his campaign in a St. Louis hospital in December with flulike symptoms.

Others have been better at sticking to the script, even with planes full of reporters trailing them. Former Republican candidate Mike Huckabee got a lot of mileage out of repeating his personal story of losing 100 pounds through diet and exercise.

Managing all the eating and drinking for votes is a whole other problem.

Bloggers have recently questioned if Clinton, 60, has gained some weight. No word from the campaign, but she and former President Bill Clinton, once a devotee of McDonald's, have talked about losing pounds on the South Beach Diet. Last year, she also told 60 Minutes that she's been popping hot peppers to keep her metabolism "revved up" on the campaign trail.

"I think it's pretty clear this kind of schedule is a strain on the body; not all that different from what we might see in people working three jobs or switching rapidly between the night shift and the day shift," said Dr. Lawrence J. Cheskin, director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center. "

There was some flap last week after Obama, 46, accused the presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain of "losing his bearings," and the Arizona senator's campaign shot back that the younger man was attacking McCain's age.

McCain, the oldest of the candidates at 71, has come under the most scrutiny about his health. He already battled melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer. He's also unable to exercise traditionally because of injuries from his 1967 plane crash in Vietnam, staffers have told reporters.

His 16- to 20-hour days, they say, prove his stamina. They also point out that he begins each day with breakfast, which registered dietitian Judith Feola Gordon reiterated is the day's most important meal.

"By making sure to eat a good breakfast, you'll have a clear focus on the task at hand, and it's less likely that you'll become hungry later in the day and eat whatever comes first," she said.

Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, also the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said attending barbecues and chicken dinners is a joy and an obligation, but he said many candidates don't end up eating because they're talking.

After some such affairs, he admits to bingeing on junk food late at night when he gets home.

At least one observer thinks a lack of sleep and other pressures has led to some bad word choices, such as Obama's comment that working-class people are "bitter." Bruce Gronbeck, professor of communications studies at the University of Iowa, said the long-running primary season, which began with campaign stops in February 2007, is "unprecedented."

Still, all and all, they don't look so bad at this stage, said Dante Scala, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.

"Politicians must be able to go into `cruise control' in a way most of us cannot, especially in making the same speeches again and again, repeating the same themes and talking points," he said. "Overall, they're handling the campaign pretty well, given that they've been going at this now for more than a year."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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