- The Washington Times - Monday, December 20, 1999

Republican presidential front-runner George W. Bush is known as a charismatic face-to-face campaigner who makes even Democrats bubble with excitement, but observers say he has yet to master the elusive political art of projecting that charm on television.
But the people who earn a living studying politicians’ smirks, smiles and statements say the Texas governor is improving.
Described in his first two presidential debates as “lackluster,” Mr. Bush rebounded last week in Iowa in a more freewheeling debate format that allowed him to poke fun at himself and his foes. He invited rivals to pose a follow-up question against debate rules and good-naturedly teased an interviewer who cut him off: “I was just warming up.”
Whether Mr. Bush can warm up completely to television in the future, however, is still an open question for some consultants. Since the debates began, Mr. Bush has dropped 20 points among those describing him as a “strong leader,” according to an ABC-Washington Post poll of New Hampshire residents released Thursday.
“The exposure he gets on television will define him,” said Norm Ornstein, resident scholar and political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. “It’s a problem for him. This is really not a new phenomenon, but it’s a significant phenomenon. The battlefield is littered with the bodies of people who were great in small settings.”
Said a Republican strategist who didn’t want his name used: “Bush is very strong on the stump. That needs to come across more clearly on the debates on TV, and that’s easier said than done.”
People who have known Mr. Bush for years say his disarming personality is ideally suited to working a room.
“It’s a combination of sincerity, conviction, wit, good appearance, appropriate humility and studying the issues,” said Texas state Rep. Will Hartnett, Dallas Republican. “He’s a natural. He’s the package.”
Mr. Hartnett recalled an encounter with a Democratic state legislator, Leticia Van de Putte, shortly after Mr. Bush was sworn in for his first term as governor.
“Governor Bush personally called me at my house to talk about the bill I’m working on,” she told Mr. Hartnett excitedly. “In four years, [Democratic governor] Ann Richards never called me about anything.”
“I fully expected the Democratic majority to be throwing darts and knives at him,” Mr. Hartnett said. “He charmed the Austin Democrats like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
Said Republican media consultant John Morgan Jr., “When he comes into a room and shakes your hand, he’s a warm guy. This is a West Texas guy you would like to spend a Friday night with. Maybe he isn’t the best debater.”
Ari Fleischer, a spokesman for the Bush campaign, said Mr. Bush did not prepare differently for the third debate, the format of which encouraged more banter among the six Republican rivals.
“We didn’t change anything,” Mr. Fleischer said. “Governor Bush prepared the same way. He just enjoyed the format, and the results spoke for themselves. He enjoys being allowed to mix it up. He has a very free-flowing, loose style. He enjoys the repartee between the candidates. He thinks the voters benefit from it.”
Mr. Fleischer also said that holding Mr. Bush to the same standard on television as in person is unrealistic.
“If you’re able to hit a 500-foot home run as a one-on-one campaigner, does anything else compare?” Mr. Fleischer asked. “He’s such a strong, gifted one-on-one campaigner. That’s one of his greatest strengths.”
And Republican pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick said genuine warmth in a candidate is more important than the ability to give a clever performance in a televised debate.
“The debate format tends to benefit the rigid and the remote, like Al Gore,” Miss Fitzpatrick said. “You would much prefer the individual who is more comfortable out on the trail, kissing the babies and shaking hands.”
She said that with the Bush campaign raising more than $60 million so far, paid advertising will help counter any perception that the candidate lacks warmth or depth.
“He can afford to have us get our impression of him on his visual terms,” she said.
Consultants say the matter might seem trivial and unsubstantive, but it is important, especially in general elections.
“The fact is, TV is a critical medium in campaigns,” the Republican strategist said. “It will affect a vast number of voters, especially swing voters. They’re more likely to be influenced by TV performance. They follow things in less depth than hard conservatives or hard liberal voters.”
Said Mr. Ornstein, “It obviously affects the voters with less depth of knowledge.”
Mr. Ornstein said the presidential campaigns of Walter Mondale and Bruce Babbitt suffered from the inability to convey their personalities on television. And he said in 1976, Democrat Jimmy Carter struggled with the same problem.
“Carter would travel around, meet with small groups and dazzle them,” Mr. Ornstein said. “He fell completely flat on television.”
Of course, Mr. Carter also managed to win the presidency.

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