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VCRs Let Politicians Propagandize in 100 Places at Once While Avoiding Debate : Videos Putting Candidates Where They Aren't

December 08, 1987|CATHLEEN DECKER | Times Staff Writer

MANCHESTER, N. H. — In Bobbi Arnold's downstairs family room, Bob Dole's voice broke. His shoulders stiffened. His eyes teared. A sob lurched from his throat. A dozen people watched, transfixed.

Dole's struggle was certain to make people take notice--and it did, 11 years ago, when it happened. The Bob Dole observed in Bobbi Arnold's living room last month was a video image, a televised remnant of Dole's 1976 vice presidential campaign. But it could not have been more compelling had the Kansas senator himself been standing right there--which was precisely the point.

Video Dole entered Arnold's home on one of the VCR cassettes that have supplanted traditional brochures, bumper stickers and buttons as this season's front-line political artillery. Of the dozen major party candidates, 11 have or soon will start video assaults on America's voters.

A Dilemma Answered

For the candidates, videotapes are the answer to a national campaign's dilemma: how to be in two or three or 100 places at once. Pop a cassette into a VCR and out comes Bob Dole or Michael S. Dukakis or Bruce Babbitt, as sensitive or forceful or direct as a film maker can make him.

"It's the political equivalent of cloning," said John Buckley, a spokesman for Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N. Y.). "If they can't have Jack Kemp, they can have a video."

More to the point, they can have a slick, selective piece of political propaganda, a device that can play on voters' emotions without offering opportunity for debate. Voters watching the videos see only what the candidate wants them to see. Warts tend not to surface.

No one knows whether the videos can influence the outcome of elections. Some suggest that they serve only to maintain enthusiasm among supporters; others feel that they will play a less substantial role as the campaigns mature and the candidates become better known.

Help Loosen Checkbooks

But most campaign officials say the videos are paying their way by burnishing the candidates' images among undecided voters, increasing the ranks of the committed and loosening checkbooks of potential donors.

The videos have cropped up at every kind of political function, from Bobbi Arnold's family room to a gathering of a few hundred Republicans in Fairfield, Me., to the Florida State GOP convention last month. Bob Dole couldn't make it, but his video did, sharing the stage and the audience's attention with flesh-and-blood Vice President George Bush, former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. and former television evangelist Pat Robertson.

Until this year, videos were little used in national campaigns, save for a few examples--among them a successful 1984 attempt by Democratic nominee Walter F. Mondale to bolster his fund raising.

This campaign season, the explosion in the use of videos was fueled by both the surge in the use of VCRs--more than half of the households in America now have them, according to industry executives--and a campaign calendar heavily weighted with early primaries and caucuses.

Pressure of Super Tuesday

The creation of Super Tuesday, when 20 states will hold caucuses and primaries on March 8, demanded an earlier candidate presence in those states than when the primaries fell in later months. And Super Tuesday follows on the heels of the contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, where candidates are under fierce pressure to campaign in person.

A video's central appeal is its potential for giving voters a sense of the candidate, more than a recitation of proposals and issues, in a year in which character and personality have seemed to dominate the debate.

"People really want to get to know the candidates," said Virginia-based media consultant Mike Murphy, whose firm put together the Dole video. "The job of a video is real simple: to introduce."

Besides that shared concept, however, there is little unanimity among the users. The videos range in length from eight minutes of Kemp's football and political careers to a 54-minute, strobe-lit extravaganza starring Robertson. They can be pure Americana, as is Dole's, with its emphasis on his small-town childhood and extensive war injuries, or blunt descriptions of positions and a request for money, as is Republican candidate Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont's.

Overall, they are inexpensive: Campaigns willing to put price tags on them say they range from $10,000 to $40,000 to prepare, a small sum measured against the multimillion-dollar budgets of presidential campaigns. And most campaigns double the economy by using tape from the videos in their television ads, or vice versa.

Although some candidates--like Bush--intend the videos only for fund-raising events, most are being used to update traditional political kaffeeklatsches. This year, voters who gather in a neighbor's home for coffee, Danish and political talk can also get a side order of video candidate.

Robertson Dominates Field

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