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This Grand Old Tradition a Hard One for Candidates to Shake

Campaign: In this era of modems and prepackaged images, human touch is still a vital part of the trail.


NEW ORLEANS — As the rally crowd cheered, Al Gore scooped up Sarah Ambriz, a chubby-cheeked toddler in a leopard-print dress. The child's grinning father was fumbling for his camera, but Gore had already turned toward the press. "Can you wave?" Gore whispered through a smile like some amateur ventriloquist. "Can you wave to them? Please?"

Sarah never waved, never even smiled, but that didn't really matter.

Her father got a scrapbook memory, the vice president got another camera-ready, populist moment. And the news media brought home an image far more interesting than a candidate delivering a speech.

This dance is nothing new--"shaking hands and kissing babies" is a grand old tradition, after all--but in this era of prepackaged images, the human touch on the campaign trail has perhaps never been more important--or calculated.

Physical contact, campaign leaders know, creates visual metaphors and brings candidates--whether Democratic presidential nominee Gore or Republican nominee George W. Bush--closer to the public, both literally and figuratively.

A candidate shakes hundreds and hundreds of hands a day on the trail, but no matter how exhausting, the tradition is impossible to, well, shake. "I don't think you could run for president and win if you didn't shake hands or interact with people," said Dennis Kinsey, who studies the image-building of candidates as an associate professor of communications at Syracuse University.

"As a culture, we pick up a lot of information based on perception and visual stimulus. That kind of universal communication and body language is a big part of the perception of a candidate."

Watching Gore work the New Orleans crowd, Democratic Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana mused about the still-vital human touch factor in an age when television and modems would seem to put more distance between populace and politician.

"You have to touch people, you have to touch their hands and their hearts," Breaux said. "In New Orleans, in Louisiana, if you don't see and touch people--touch their hands, touch their hearts--then they don't trust you."

Gore and his phalanx of wary Secret Service agents finally retreat into the night after 15 minutes of post-speech crowd work.

"That man," Breaux said, "has a callus on all 10 fingers."

For Some Candidates, Touching Isn't a Natural Thing

Bill Clinton perhaps set a new presidential standard for human touch with his bear hugs, charismatic crowd-working and ability to bond with people from different walks of life. But all this touching doesn't come naturally to every candidate.

Take Republican vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney. A serious, even stolid, man, the former secretary of Defense is more associated with policy than passion. That has shown too during this campaign.

There is, for example, his encounters with "tax families," the married couples and their children tapped by the campaign to illustrate the boons of the GOP tax plans. While Cheney's wife, Lynne, made a point of holding the little ones' hands, Cheney did not. And at one stop, as a mother cradled her baby, Cheney reached out to the tyke and . . . shook the infant's hand.

"I don't kiss babies; I'm not a kisser," Cheney explained weeks later when asked about his comfort working the "rope line," as campaign veterans call it. In time, Cheney warmed to the constant handshaking.

"You have to get accustomed to it--at least I did," Cheney said as his chartered plane shuttled between rallies in Kansas City, Mo., and Arkansas. "As a national candidate, I think you have to do it now. . . . I'm not sure that you could walk away from an event without it. If you didn't do it, there would be a lot of comment."

At rallies early on the trail, Cheney sometimes seemed a bit bewildered by the fervor of the surging crowds calling out to touch him, share a comment or get an autograph.

"It's fascinating. I have been surprised at how intense it is for them," he said. "When you get out there working the crowd after the speech and you've got people, five or six deep, pushing forward trying to reach you, to touch you, or they want you to touch their child . . . it's a physical need."

In the race's final days, the excitement of true believers at rallies moved up considerably. At many events, Gore practically dived over the police railings to reach people back in the crowd--with Secret Service agents holding onto his belt loops to pull him back.

In Glen Ellyn, Ill., thousands of Texas Gov. Bush's supporters recently packed the grassy commons of a junior college to see their candidate. Those in front jockeyed for position, stretching their arms, asking for autographs or just hoping to make eye contact.

Part of that passion is stirred by the culture of the day and the way leaders are presented and promoted like film or rock stars, Kinsey said.

"There is," he said, "a component of celebrity to all this."

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