‘Likability’ is the key

U.S. PRESIDENTIAL RACE 2008

Democratic and Republican candidates highlight softer side in fight to win hearts in Iowa.

AT THE age of 12, Hillary Rodham craved attention from cute boys in school.

At times she would take off those Coke-bottle-thick glasses she so hated wearing to get noticed. But without them, she could hardly see, and needed her good friend Betsy to guide her along the school hallways.

And when Don – among other boys – walked by, Betsy would whisper into her ears, “It’s Don”, and Hillary would call out brightly, “Hi, Don!”

Today, Ms Betsy Ebeling is still lending a hand to her old friend. She and many others close to the Clinton clan have come to Iowa to be part of a warm-and-fuzzy tour, portraying the softer side of Democrat Senator Hillary Clinton.

Image is turning out to be a pivotal issue as the two major political parties in the US presidential race holds its first ballot in just over a week to choose their respective candidates for the election in November.

As the first state to choose its preferred contenders, Iowa carries particular significance. Whoever wins this battle could get critical momentum in the flurry of nominating clashes that follow.

Since 1976, the victor in Iowa has become the Democratic nominee in five of seven contested battles, and the Republican nominee three times out of five.

Image – or “likability” – played a big factor in these previous races. But it is even more so now with no heir apparent in both Democrat and Republican camps this time.

What it means is that all candidates have to work that much harder to win over voters in Iowa’s caucases.

The system of caucuses – a word thought to come from an Indian term for a gathering of chiefs – dates back to the dawn of American democracy, and is designed to ensure that a candidate is endorsed only after robust public discussion.

When voters gather in schools, church basements and town halls on the night of Jan 3, everything is out in the open. There are no secret ballots.

They vote with their feet, by raising their hands and moving to different parts of the room to show support for one candidate or another. If the contenders fall short of the threshold – 15 per cent of the total number in the room – their supporters will often switch sides. That’s when the deal-making starts.

For the Democrats, Iowa’s complicated rules for winning mean that being a voter’s second choice can translate into solid support on caucus night.

The most valuable Democratic second-choice voters are those who support second-tier candidates – Mr Bill Richardson, Mr Joe Biden, Mr Chris Dodd and Mr Dennis Kucinich. They all are polling in single digits and are not expected to reach the threshold in the state’s 1,781 precincts.

Recent polls have the four combined pulling in roughly 15 per cent of the voters. That is a significant number that will be available, especially when Mrs Clinton and her rivals, Mr Barack Obama and Mr John Edwards, are in a tight three-way race for victory in Iowa.

How these voters who back the also-rans gravitate to the rest of the field will come down to how the front runners have been selling themselves in the state in the past months.

Iowa is a small, rural and predominantly white Protestant state in the Midwest. It is one state that has been averse to negative campaigning. And it is showing in the polls.

Mrs Clinton has been been forced to change tack as a result, to counter the charisma of her rival, Illinois Senator Obama.

Last week, she hired a helicopter – dubbed the “Hillacopter” – to crisscross Iowa with mother, husband Bill Clinton and the basketball player Magic Johnson in tow – to show her softer side. A new website, thehillaryiknow.com, features video tributes from people who have known her over the course of her life.

She also retooled her stump speech to be more personally revealing, and appears to have modulated her voice a bit to make it sound smoother and softer.

It is a noticeable change for the New York senator, who has spent most of the campaign emphasising her toughness, and in recent weeks, bitter attacks on rivals like Mr Obama.

Mr Obama, for his part, is still on a charm offensive, trying to keep above mudslinging and personal attacks.

Apart from immigration – a hot topic at almost every forum – both parties are pressing very different concerns in Iowa. In TV debates and campaign rallies, Democrat contenders have focused on health-care costs and global climate change.

The Republicans have dwelt on how to deal with high taxes and government spending.

In the Republican camp, the image battles are between the Powerpoint Man, also known as former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and the Preacher, former Arkansas governor and ordained Baptist minister Mike Huckabee.

It has parallels with the Clinton-Obama battle, with the methodical Mr Romney pitching his business acumen and Mr Huckabee winning hearts with his folksy charm.

Mr Huckabee’s spectacular rise in the polls also owes much to his conservative views on issues such as abortion and gay rights that seem to have resonated among predominantly rightwing Republican supporters in Iowa.

Years in the pulpit have also made it easy for him to quote scripture with ease and brandish his Christian credentials naturally, unlike other rivals such as Mr Rudy Giuliani, the prickly former New York mayor with the liberal values and troubled family life.

Mr Giuliani lost his national lead in the Republican field last week after a flurry of negative publicity about his personal and business activities.

He appears unfazed about losing Iowa, however, given his approach to the race, which is to concentrate on the bigger states.

After Iowa, expect candidates to fine-tune their messages to sound likable – and “electable” – in the days, weeks and months ahead.

At the end of the day, the battle for the White House is not just about winning over minds but hearts as well.

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