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Under Royal Repair : Polo's out, state visits and more photo ops with the kids are in as Prince Charles tries to regain credibility post-Di.

April 19, 1993|JEFF KAYE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONDON — Top brand names often slug it out for marketplace superiority. There's Coke versus Pepsi. McDonald's versus Burger King.

And now, without the necessity of paid advertising, there's Charles versus Diana, pitted against each other in the marketplace of public affection. The battle, unlike the Prince and Princess of Wales themselves, is joined.

Ever since the Royal Couple announced their separation four months ago, the pair and their camps had been waging a (mostly) subtle public relations war.

But the growing intensity of the campaigns has forced the issue into the open.

What is emerging is an effort by Buckingham Palace--which is to say Queen Elizabeth and the official machinery of the monarchy--to fashion a new regal image for Prince Charles while simultaneously edging Princess Diana, still the most popular royal, out of the limelight.

Diana's popularity enables her to maintain her status as a front-line royal figure. And being on the front line enables her to maintain her popularity.

This is seen as troubling for the queen and the other "blood" royals.

Charles in Charge

For Diana, the goal is to maintain her stature as a separate, but equal, member of the Royal Family. She already has seen the House of Windsor make an outcast of Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York.

While Diana can never be swept aside as easily as Fergie--after all, the Princess of Wales is the mother of an heir to the throne--she is in danger of having her position vastly minimized.

Charles, on the other hand, must build an image as a respected solo operator who will carry the monarchy into the 21st Century. It won't be easy.

The Prince of Wales has for years stood in the shadow of his glamorous wife. But his reputation has slid considerably since the separation. And when reports surfaced of his alleged extramarital affair with aristocrat Camilla Parker-Bowles, whose husband once held the arcane post of "Silver Stick in Waiting to the Queen," his stock plummeted.

He became a national subject of ridicule when transcripts were published of the infamous "Camillagate" tape, which purportedly captured the prince and Parker-Bowles in an intimate conversation that ranged from gooey sex patter to toilet humor.

"He took a tremendous jolt from the Camilla tape. A tremendous jolt," says author Brian Hoey, who has written 10 books on the Royal Family.

Since then, Prince Charles has been on a desperate mission to rehabilitate himself. The man who will one day ascend the throne of the United Kingdom must distance himself from associations with infidelity and Tampax jokes.

To that end, he has eschewed some of his less weighty pursuits, such as polo, and concentrated on establishing himself as a serious international figure.

He flew to Bosnia to shake hands with British troops posted there. He traveled to Warrington, in northwest England, to visit victims of an Irish Republican Army bomb attack. There have been sojourns to Prague, Mexico City and Washington.

"The Palace was thrilled to bits at his reception in the United States," says Hoey, who is in regular contact with royal insiders. "That visit to the United States and meeting President Clinton has been the single most important visit he has made since the separation and the single most important item for his rehabilitation."

On the Home Front

Whether he can duplicate the Washington fanfare in his own country remains to be seen, however.

Some of Charles's recent activities seemed designed to add credibility to more personal aspects of his life. He frequently is photographed shepherding his sons, whom he previously had been accused of ignoring. An exhibition of his paintings just went on display at the Museum of Garden History in London.

Other princely projects, initiated before the separation, have just surfaced, adding to the flurry of activity.

On Easter, Charles appeared on British television narrating a children's story he wrote in 1980 called "The Old Man of Lochnagar." Although it was taped last November, the timing of the broadcast was not bad for someone with a need to project a wise and fatherly image to his country.

And to top it off, Charles has the best-selling nonfiction book in Britain, "Highgrove: Portrait of an Estate," a lush coffee table book about organic farming and gardening at his country estate. (Notably, "Diana: Her True Story" is still the No. 1 paperback in Britain.)

Doing In Di?

The repackaging of Prince Charles represents the positive face of the Buckingham Palace PR offensive. Its handling of Princess Diana is the seamier side.

The Palace denies that Prince Charles' battered public image is being reshaped, let alone that there is an effort to undercut Diana.

There is strong evidence to the contrary, however.

Diana is still free to attend movie premieres, speak at charity luncheons, and visit the homeless and diseased. But her attempts to participate in matters of state have met with resistance.

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