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Press's Power Over Opinion Disputed : Media Boomlet for Babbitt Has Little Impact on Polls

January 30, 1988|THOMAS B. ROSENSTIEL | Times Staff Writer

The rumbling began in November, the popping noises around Christmas.

By mid-January, the "Babbitt media boomlet" was on. And for the next three weeks, Democratic presidential candidate Bruce Babbitt, dead last in the polls, enjoyed a rare crush of rave notices from the nation's press corps.

In the past week, the first polls following all the publicity were published, and they challenge the axiom that the press is the dominant shaper of public opinion in presidential politics.

Babbitt has risen modestly after his moment of fame.

But Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who lately has received perhaps the toughest press treatment of any candidate, has shot dramatically from nearly last to the front of the pack in polls in Iowa, where the first major test of the campaign occurs with the Feb. 8 caucuses.

The lesson, say political professionals, is that the press's role in presidential politics is more subtle than conventional wisdom would suggest, particularly in the early contests.

In Iowa and New Hampshire, where presidential politics is about as easy to ignore as a Shriners' convention in your living room, the press is just one voice in the party's din.

And even then, not that many are listening.

"Not everybody reads through all those long stories," said Babbitt's press secretary, Michael D. McCurry. "They may be aware there is some guy named Babbitt . . . but they aren't quite aware what they are hearing."

At times during the campaign, officials caution, the press will hold enormous sway: When matters seem uncertain, the press has a habit of imposing verdicts--and that perception becomes politics' reality.

But at least for now, events this year counter some of the conventional wisdom of presidential campaigns, which holds, in the words of George Bush's media consultant Roger Ailes, that "the public gets most of its information on presidential candidates from the news media."

Media Group-Think

Regardless of its impact, the Babbitt Boomlet offers a crash course in media group-think.

Dayton Duncan, who was one of Walter F. Mondale's chief campaign organizers in 1984 and now is writing a book about the New Hampshire primary, describes the press corps as a "campaignapede," a multi-headed insect whose antennae point inward, picking up most of its information from itself.

When the insect found Bruce Babbitt, the former Arizona governor was already in debt and dead last in the Iowa, New Hampshire and national polls.

Among the first to discover him was Jack Beatty, a senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly who sometimes writes for the Los Angeles Times' op-ed page and Opinion section.

Babbitt's proposals, Beatty wrote, represent "the most imaginative program for reform since that of the New Deal." But Beatty concluded that Babbitt was dead last because the "Eastern media," which figured Arizona was all cowboy boots and cactus, had ignored him.

Then the Washington Monthly, grading the Democrats on the substance of their ideas in late December, gave Babbitt 3.17 out of 4.0. No one else bettered 1.5.

Praise From New Republic

A few days later, a long laudatory profile in the New Republic, another staple of the political press corps, praised the back-runner for having the "supplest mind, the most coherent and interesting set of proposals and the most impressive record" of any Democrat running.

Early in the new year, Time magazine called him "the only candidate offering a realistic plan for serious deficit reductions," a view the New York Times seconded. Newsweek said Babbitt was set "apart" because he had the guts to propose trimming federal benefits to the middle class.

A Washington Post feature stunned even Babbitt's aides: "He persists in the notion that speaking the truth to the masses not only makes a man a prophet, it makes him President."

Frustrated officials from rival campaigns frowned. "Reporters bought into the idea that the only intellectually honest approach to deficit reduction is through raising taxes," said Illinois Sen. Paul Simon's campaign spokesman, Terry Michael.

And then the Boston Globe, New York Times, ABC and NBC started doing stories about all the positive stories the press was writing.

Perspective From Polls

Now, with a round of polls conducted last week, some sense can be had of what difference it all made.

In early December, before former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart re-entered the race, Babbitt sat at the bottom of the pack with roughly 7% of likely Iowa caucus-goers pledging to support him.

After Hart's return, Babbitt dropped to 2% or 3%.

Now, after the media boomlet, he rose to roughly 10%. Babbitt's highest surge came in a Los Angeles Times poll of New Hampshire voters released this week. It showed Babbitt in third place, the preferred candidate of 13% of New Hampshire Democrats.

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