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Pop Culture Politics: Live With George W.

Media: A lighthearted appearance on Regis Philbin's TV talk show allows the Republican to sweet talk a desirable audience: female voters.

September 22, 2000|MARIA L. La GANGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — George W. Bush shared an early morning talk show Thursday with a man who can break 31 boards on his head in 30 seconds and a truck-driving member of the hit TV show "Survivor."

PBS it wasn't.

But if the idea was to showcase the Republican presidential nominee's folksy, boy-next-door qualities to stay-at-home moms, to remind the masses why they liked Bush in the first place--before his poll numbers began to dip--then the 20 minutes on "Live With Regis" was just what the TV Guide ordered.

Donning Regis Philbin's trademark monochromatic shirt-tie ensemble (purplish, kind of shiny), Bush also engaged in repartee with Susan Hawk--one of the final four on "Survivor" and the show's blue-collar bully, who once told a fellow island dweller that she'd rather let the woman die of thirst than help her.

And you thought politics was tough.

But for all her earlier broadcast bad behavior, Hawk told the Texas governor Thursday that she really liked his plan to partially privatize Social Security and allow younger workers to invest some of their own payroll taxes in private investment accounts.

"I like that--let me invest my own money," exclaimed Hawk, before she warned that such a step is "going to be a tough transition." "That's OK," Bush responded, hitting a theme that he later sounded at a campaign stop in Ohio, adding that private investment will allow workers to "get a better rate of return on people's money."

"And give them more responsibility," Hawk interrupted--and not for the first time. "Americans can handle it. Americans are not dumb."

This brief flash of substance came after Philbin had told Bush that his wife, Laura, was "very attractive," after the viewing audience had seen a picture of a young George W. on a pony and learned that Hawk once had a pony too: "Sugar," Hawk said. "I had her for the longest time, and then we had to sell her."

It was also after the following exchange, not quite preparation for Bush's upcoming debates with Democratic rival Al Gore:

Philbin: "Here in New York, they just call you W."

Hawk: "How does that work? I like that--W."

Philbin: "What's the W for?"

Bush: "Walker. My middle name."

Hawk, slowly, with relish: "Wa-lker!"

Bush, tolerantly: "George Walker Bush. There's another George Bush."

Hawk: "There's a Texas Ranger named Walker."

At least it wasn't a turn in the wrestling ring on WWF's "Smackdown!"

"You don't want to stoop too low or you won't look presidential," said Darrell West, director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University. "It would be bad if he appeared on 'Hollywood Squares.' "

But in this media-driven, self-referential culture (Philbin asked Bush whether the governor had watched his other show) talk shows allow the candidates to reach a large and crucial audience.

Gore, like Bush, also has appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," although he has yet to rub elbows with Philbin. Both candidates have joked on camera with David Letterman. The Democrat recently tooled around NBC's Burbank parking lot in one of Jay Leno's antique cars.

But Philbin's show gave Bush a critical audience, West said: "Regis draws very well among women, stay-at-home moms, retirees. That's a key demographic where he needs a boost. . . . He does need to remind people he is a nice guy."

Philbin and his just-retired co-host, Kathie Lee Gifford, have always been known more for ditsiness than in-depth interviewing; because of that, the last half of Bush's appearance on "Live" gave the Republican another big gift: Ten minutes of free air time to speak his piece to an appreciative audience.

"There are a lot of people, especially here in New York City, where the neighborhood school is rundown and beat up and dilapidated and not worth sending their child to, but [parents] have no alternative," Regis said, in the windup to a particularly sweet pitch. "As I understand it, a school voucher could give them that alternative."

Sure, Bush said, and he was off on his favorite topic: education. Then another favorite: What's wrong with the Clinton administration's energy policy? The audience cheered when he talked tax cuts. Then he answered this toughy: "Tell us why the people should vote for you."

The end result of this outreach via mass media? "He did great," said Bush spokesman Scott McClellan, who noted that such talk shows bring in lots of female voters. "I think it was another one knocked out of the ballpark."

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