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Campaign '96 / MEDIA : For Voters, Campaign Trail Can Provide a Study in Contrasts : They're favorably impressed when they see candidates in person. Print, TV images offer more negative views, they say.

February 07, 1996|ELEANOR RANDOLPH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

INDIANOLA, Iowa — Sharon Grunwald had seen Republican Sen. Bob Dole on television many times. Even though she liked him as a candidate, she worried recently he did not look strong and confident enough to be president.

So she went down to Bort's Custom Cabinets near her home last week to check out the real thing. "I really had never seen Sen. Dole in person before," said Grunwald, a 52-year-old housewife. "And I thought he looked really healthy and robust in real life.

"That was something I was looking for, even though I'm not really concerned that he's 72, I thought he looked very good. And I liked him. I liked what he said. I thought he was funny."

Similarly, Diane Guess, a secretarial worker for Maytag Corp. in Newton, Iowa, saw publishing heir Steve Forbes give a speech last week at a company meeting hall. The candidate she witnessed in person and the one she sees in the media seemed like different people. "I thought he seemed confident, and on TV he doesn't come off as confident or comfortable," she said. "I thought he was pretty direct and sincere. I was more impressed, seeing him in person."

At other events, as presidential hopefuls shake hands at a mall or walk the breadth of a state or sit around a family's kitchen table, individual voters experience the vast difference between the real candidate and the one who has been filtered into print or onto television. In general, the candidate is far more likable and believable than the person who appears in the news.

In early caucus or primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire, many voters can actually see candidates and weigh the differences between the real person and the politician they see in the media. But as the presidential election continues throughout the year, the balance shifts and the percentage of voters who have actually seen the candidates becomes minuscule in comparison.

"I'm always struck by the fact that the events always seem far more lively in reality than in the news. When I go to these meetings, I don't find them boring," said Hugh Winebrenner, professor of public administration at Drake University in Des Moines. "What they see in the media provides a very limited picture of such things. The press, including people I like very much, they're a pretty jaded bunch. They go to these things day in, day out. They don't ever smile, don't ever applaud, just scribble a few notes." They "mechanically" go "through the mechanism of gathering the news."

Such contrasts raise the question of whether there are really two campaigns--one presented by the candidate and other by the media.

For the candidate, the idea is to win votes, often handshake by handshake, speech by speech. The job for the media has increasingly been viewed as explaining what happens behind the scenes, what today's speech means in relation to yesterday's, how this candidate's events contrast with the opposition.

The media often see any serious candidate as a politician on the make, according to a number of analysts and campaign workers. Motives for running are often viewed as a lust for power rather than a push for progress or change, and the campaign's strategies are depicted as attempts to lure the voters into spending their currency--their votes--on a candidate concocted in a political research laboratory.

Some members of the media suggest that such coverage stems from years of being tricked and manipulated by candidates who view the networks and the major newspapers as "free coverage." Thus any journalist who offers positive news about a candidate is "in the tank."

Deborah Potter, a former CBS and CNN correspondent who now teaches at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla., said some members of the media are changing by increasingly looking to citizens or voters for news about politics and issues. She cited a CBS-TV round table after the president's State of the Union speech where commentary came not only from "the usual suspects in the blue suits" but also from ordinary citizens.

"It was a small step but a good step," she said.

Other journalists have suggested that part of the reason that coverage is so different from reality is that the candidates often repeat the same message--often word for word and gesture by gesture--at each event. What might thrill a first-time consumer grows quickly old on the second round or third or 14th round for a journalist.

"Most of the coverage I've seen seems to be pretty negative and doesn't mention any benefits of anybody's ideas, just the problems" said Shawn Risseeuw, a 30-year-old engineer who witnessed a Forbes speech last week. "On television, they only showed one little bit of what I witnessed. It was just the first few words of one of his jokes and then everybody was laughing. They didn't even have the whole joke."

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