- The Washington Times - Monday, March 12, 2007

WASHINGTON - Call it the presidential candidates’ striptease.

White House hopefuls aren’t willing to just declare they’re running, but rather are flirting with the idea as long as possible. First, they show some leg with an exploratory committee, then plenty of skin with a pronouncement on a faux news program or a late-night show and finally they bare all with a ruffles-and-flourish formal announcement.

“I’m here today to announce that my family and I will make a decision on my political future later this year,” Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel said at a much-hyped news conference Monday in his hometown of Omaha, Neb.

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama drew 17,000 people to Springfield, Ill., last month to formally announce a presidential campaign that had been up and running for nearly a month.

Republican John McCain, who has been campaigning for president practically since George W. Bush won a second term - or more likely when he lost to Bush in 2000 - went on CBS’ “Late Show With David Letterman” in February to say he is running. But don’t confuse that with a formal announcement - that will come in April, McCain told Letterman.

“You drag this out as long as you can. You don’t just have one rendition,” the Arizona senator said. “This is the announcement preceding the formal announcement.”

Why all the bumps and grinds before admitting what most of the country already suspects?

Democratic consultant Chris Lehane, who worked for Al Gore in 2000 and 2004 presidential candidates John Kerry and Wesley Clark, said as campaigns get increasingly expensive, the candidates are trying to attract as much free media coverage as they can.

“The reality is that all these people are running and have been running for a long time,” Lehane said. “You are looking for multiple opportunities to get a free shot to discuss your candidacy.”

But could all the teasing about the candidates’ future leave them overexposed?

Republican consultant Alex Vogel points out that candidate George W. Bush built up excitement about his intentions by being coy.

“If you play hard to get, therefore people chase you,” Vogel said. “If you go on television every five minutes and say you are running, then they don’t have to chase it.”

Sen. Joe Biden, a regular on the Sunday talk shows, repeatedly said he was running for president for the better part of the year. When the Delaware Democrat finally announced in January, it came as no surprise.

Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton revealed in January that she’s “in to win,” but even that doesn’t mean she’s completely in. Her formal announcement is expected later this year.

“There are very few moments of impact that you can predict in a presidential campaign,” said Michael Feldman, a top aide to Gore. “For her, one was a clear signal that she is running and the other will be her formal announcement. Those are times when the universe is paying attention and the window is open to deliver a very specific message about the candidate.”

Sen. Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas, got three shots at his announcement - he launched a Web site and his presidential exploratory committee on Dec. 4, his staff announced on Jan. 5 that he would officially enter the race and finally the big event came Jan. 20. That happened to be the same day that Clinton announced she was running.

“Unfortunate timing because he’s not going to get a whole lot of those,” Feldman said.

Lehane said he wouldn’t be surprised if the media and the public start to grow tired of the multiple-step process in future campaigns. He said smart campaigns are already looking for new and interesting ways to stage their announcements, such as Clinton’s decision to reveal her candidacy in a Web video or Democrat John Edwards’ kickoff with a Katrina-devastated, New Orleans neighborhood as a backdrop.

“A good presidential campaign understands this is an awful lot about theater,” Lehane said.

Which is why Hagel left observers scratching their heads when he didn’t make a definitive announcement about his plans after calling reporters together in Omaha from as far away as Washington.

Vogel called it “the Seinfeld of campaign announcements. It’s an announcement about nothing.”

Hagel was asked whether he changed his mind about a presidential run at the last minute, but he said he wrote his announcement - or non-announcement as it was - two weeks ago at his kitchen table.

He also showed that he understood there is an appetite for any scrap of information about who might be in or out of the race and that he wanted to get in the mix.

“We are about a year away from presidential primaries, and already our airwaves, our newspapers, everything, every talk show is consumed with presidential candidates and presidential politics,” Hagel said. “I don’t know how long we can sustain this or how long the American people will find that entertaining.”

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