CONCORD, N.H. — Electronic thunder rumbles, followed by flashing strobe lights and a stirring trumpet rendition of the national anthem. A waving flag and the Statue of Liberty fade into view, fireworks explode, hundreds cheer--and Pat Robertson walks out of the darkness and begins to speak.
This scene is being played again and again, at the press of a button, in living rooms and offices and auditoriums all over the nation.
In the 1930s and 1940s, candidates came into American homes by radio. In the '60s and '70s, television gave them a foot in the door. This year, supporters are carrying their candidates in little plastic videocassette cases.
Vote videos, often razzle-dazzle productions of candidates shaking hands, throwing footballs, flashing smiles and talking issues, are being used, planned or considered by all of the major campaigns.
Robertson, with 25 years as a television evangelist behind him, may be the most impressive video candidate. In his video, he quotes Washington, Adams and Jefferson to bolster his argument for a return to morality, religion, strong family bonds and the basics in education.
Robertson spokesman Robert Stiles said the video has been shown hundreds of times in New Hampshire alone, to groups from four to 120. A Dover couple shows the tape every Friday night, and a Windham supporter plays it four times a week, he said.
Jack Kemp's campaign sponsored a big video night in July, showing its tape simultaneously in 100 homes in New Hampshire, the first primary state in the 1988 campaign. And Kemp's state director, Paul Young, said supporters have been using the tape to recruit neighbors and friends and students on college campuses.
Bob Dole's campaign has produced an 18-minute video, filled with warm images of Dole's hometown of Russell, Kan. It narrates how he overcame poverty and paralyzing war wounds, and drives home the message that despite his rise to power, he has not forgotten his small-town roots.
Spokesman Paul Jacobson said the Dole video will be used to recruit supporters and perhaps to warm up audiences when Dole is making an appearance.
"With the number of households with VCRs skyrocketing, they are an effective campaign tool," said Charles Baker, state campaign director for Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis. He said the Dukakis campaign has shown a tape at several events in New Hampshire.
Will Abbott, Vice President George Bush's New Hampshire political director, believes videos are a good way to give supporters background information about the candidate--and allow the candidate a chance to give his unedited views.
Television researcher Joshua Meyrowitz, author of "No Sense of Place," an award-winning book about TV's impact on society, is concerned that these political videos will change the perception of candidates.
"There is a slickness here and a bypassing of that close eyeball-to-eyeball scrutiny," said Meyrowitz, a University of New Hampshire communications professor.
Television in general "fools us into thinking that we know our candidates," Meyrowitz said. He said videos compound the deception by eliminating one strength of television--letting the public see flaws such as "the sweat on the upper lip, the twitch."
"It is very powerful to show a neatly packaged, cleanly edited video which has the credibility of television without all of that (negative) exposure," he said.
The video approach, he said, is "brilliant from the practical stance of getting one's candidate across. But the question is, how good is it for the country and getting leaders in the White House?"
For example, said Meyrowitz, you might want a President who is given to pausing for thought. But that habit wouldn't play well in a video.
Public Relations Man
"The very things that might look good--quick thinking, running and throwing a football--are not things that make a good President. Those are good characteristics for a public relations person," he said.
And he said there might be drawbacks. Like rock groups that can't compete with electronically enhanced recordings of their own music, candidates may not be as good in person as they are on video.
Pollster Harrison Hickman said videos will have an impact on the 1988 campaign.
"Being on television gives candidates an air of legitimacy, even to voters who are used to seeing them, like the voters of New Hampshire," he said.
He said they are effective for candidates who so often have their message "filtered"--either by reporters asking questions or debates that limit answers.
"There are very few opportunities to put out your message in the language you want and in the context you want," he said.
But Hickman said voters are wise enough to know that videos produced by candidates, like television commercials for other products, must be taken with a grain of salt.
"Voters are very sophisticated today and they understand that you have to discount the value of what you see when it's paid for by the candidate themselves," he said.
Hickman said videos will not replace personal campaigning, especially in early primary states.
"If somebody never came to New Hampshire and tried to do just that (show videos), I'm sure the voters would express their disapproval on election day."
Not all of the campaigns are high on videos.
"I'm not going to drive 20 miles to see a video when I'm in New Hampshire and can see a candidate," said Gary Galanis, New England media coordinator for Democrat Paul Simon of Illinois. But Galanis said the campaign plans to use videos as a motivational tool at organizational meetings.
Dislikes Them, Uses Them
Democrat Albert Gore Jr.'s state campaign director, Richard Nicholson, does not like videos, but is making limited use of them.