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THE HOTLINE

BACKSEAT DRIVING: Murphy's "Campaign Tells"

"Backseat Driving" is a column penned by GOP consultant Mike Murphy. A veteran of the presidential primary campaign wars from cycles past, Murphy is covering the WH '04 Dem campaigns through the lens of a strategist, or to be more blunt, as a backseat driver. Remember, it's a column so the opinions are his and not necessarily reflective of
The Hotline, so if you want to deliver "blowback" on it, do so his way at
mike@radiofreegop.net.

Campaign Tells Crafty poker players always look for tells, the little signs that reveal what the opposing player is really thinking. The candidate's schedule is a campaign's most obvious tell as it reveals a lot about strategy. Another far more subtle tell is the campaign website, and a careful look between the scan lines can offer subtle clues about each campaign.

For example, who has the longest bio listed on any announced candidate's website? Teresa Heinz Kerry with an impressive 1,143 words, nearly twice her husband John Kerry's 635 words. I had no idea Ms. Heinz-Kerry was "heralded by the Utne Reader in 1995 as one of 100 American visionaries." I'd extract more but her bio is almost twice as long as this column. Elizabeth Edwards also has a forceful bio page; her 508 words dwarfs her husband's 379 words. All in all, Ms. Heinz-Kerry dominates the verbosity primary with Dick Gephardt in second (655 words), narrowly edging out third place John Kerry. Elizabeth Edwards is fourth, Howard Dean fifth (468), John Edwards sixth and Joe Lieberman seventh with his haiku-like 345 word bio.

There is no separate spouse bio page for Hadassah Lieberman, Judith Steinberg Dean or Jane Gephardt. Ms. Edwards and Ms. Heinz Kerry have long bios because each has done a lot, but each will also be a very powerful influence in their respective campaigns. (Here's an Edwards tell: Mrs. E is a big fan of the workingman's game of Lacrosse. Hint to opponents — put up a few "Lacrosse Players for (Whomever)" signs on the road from the Manchester airport before her next trip to New Hampshire. Then pray for the Edwards field staff...) Fragile front-runner John Kerry's website is a bundle of tells. Beyond Ms. H-K's epic bio, the Kerry website reveals both the strength and the weakness of the Kerry campaign; an ocean of words yielding a puddle of message. The site is admirably thick - the most elaborate of any Dem contender — but theactual content is weak.

Check the front pages. Dean's front page is a mini-stump speech about health care, Iraq and his record as VT Gov. Gephardt's front page has subheads about "Don't' Privatize Social Security", "Universal Pensions", "Fighting for America's Working Families", "Health care for All" and "Defending our Schools." Lieberman's front page features a short thematic bio about fighting for the middle class with a loud link to a "Where I Stand" page full of core Dem message points. Compare to Kerry's front page (as of 2/19). No mention of health care, jobs


or education. Instead, it headlined a (surprise!) endorsement by a Massachusetts fire-fighters union, plugged a MSNBC focus group from New Hampshire, offered condolences on the Columbia disaster and cited a good press review from Seattle. There is strong issue content about foreign policy and a link to an enviro speech, but core Dem issues and a tight Kerry message are hard to find. The issues section is a rehash of Kerry's Senate record (including a reminder that "Cranberries are vital to the Massachusetts economy"). Kerry's speech section offers bromides like a tribute to "...one of Massachusetts' most esteemed public servants, Mayor Peter Torigian of Peabody", which is turns out is "known as the 'Tanner City' for its leather trade dating back to the 1630s." Visionary stuff indeed.

This is a significant tell. The Kerry focus is on creating the process momentum of a front-runner and his website features all the King's Horses and all the King's Men. But the Kerry message is hard to find; a troubling early indicator.

John Edward's site is a far weaker version of Kerry's, mostly process stuff and very thin. His messaging is heavy on lines like "people everywhere in the real America don't care about Republicans, or Democrats, or the politics of Washington, D.C.". The tell? Edwards is also struggling to find a message for primary voters.

Am I reading a little too much into a few early websites? Of course. But nothing gets on a campaign website by itself.

Hotline Column, Backseat Driving, February 21, 2003.




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