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CAMPAIGN '08

Political stagecraft is a high-wire act

Obama's knack for campaign theatrics could backfire if public expectations exceed the eventual reality.

August 23, 2008|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Through a mix of marketing and campaign discipline, Barack Obama turned the selection of his running mate into a genuine drama.

For weeks, the Obama campaign kept silent about virtually every aspect of the process, with the candidate coyly telling reporters the other day that he had made up his mind -- and "wouldn't you like to know" exactly when he would tell the world?

Top campaign strategists and surrogates for Obama professed to know nothing about his intentions, the better to keep the mystery alive.

Obama's handling of the announcement is the latest example of his penchant for crafting big, attention-grabbing events out of what are normally predictable campaign steps.

Every presumptive nominee needs a No. 2. But Obama led the search in a way that kept the public focus squarely on himself while giving his campaign an organizational lift.

In a clever bit of salesmanship, the campaign invited people to "be the first to know" the name of Obama's choice, offering to send the news in a text message.

In return, people gave up their e-mail addresses and cellphone numbers -- data the campaign can use to mobilize turnout come election day. The campaign has declined to say how many people signed up.

But news that the No. 2 pick was Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. leaked before the text was sent.

For all the stagecraft, some Democratic Party veterans warned that Obama's efforts could backfire if the vice presidential choice turned out to be a familiar name -- as it did. Voters might decide that Biden didn't warrant the extended drumroll of the last few days.

Then there is the risk that Obama will be seen as overly consumed with campaign theatrics. His Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, is already portraying Obama as a shallow celebrity. Obama's trip overseas -- another example of how his campaign constructed an attention-getting moment -- may have played into such perceptions.

There is nothing unusual about a presidential candidate traveling abroad. McCain also went overseas after clinching the nomination.

But Obama turned the trip into a signature moment of his campaign, a test of his ability to hold his own with world leaders.

Network anchors covered the journey with an intensity that left the McCain campaign envious. The emotional apex was Obama's speech to a huge crowd in Berlin, some waving flags handed out by Obama aides.

But since returning home, Obama has seen his lead over McCain diminish in national polls.

Don Fowler, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said that the build-up for Obama's vice presidential announcement will end up subjecting the nominee to an uncomfortable degree of scrutiny.

"All this coaxing, this being coy and planning to the nth degree is going to invite the most detailed critical scrutiny that you've ever seen," Fowler said before Biden's name leaked out.

"In spite of the fact that [the rumored choices] are all wonderful people, none of them is Jesus and none of them is Moses. Even their friends can point out shortcomings."

Another test of Obama's campaign strategy comes Thursday, when he accepts the Democratic presidential nomination in a Denver football stadium that can seat 76,000 people.

The traditional location would be the smaller indoor arena where the rest of the convention will unfold. But Obama is raising the stakes by moving the event to a bigger venue, putting more pressure on himself to deliver an exceptional speech.

Any number of things could go wrong; a heavy rain could spoil the mood.

But as with the running-mate drama, the Obama campaign went with an unorthodox choice to make more of the moment and to exploit interest in the speech for organizing purposes.

Obama aides said that spectators who are given tickets to the event will be asked to go out and register Democratic voters.

In that way, Obama's speech may serve to strengthen an already formidable field operation.

But if he is flat that night, the acoustics do not work or the lighting is poor, he may wish he had stuck to the more controlled environment of the Pepsi Center.

Mark Fabiani, communications director for Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign, said that Obama is taking a calculated risk with his stadium speech.

"It's double-edged, because it creates tremendous expectations," Fabiani said.

He noted that the last nomination speech in such a venue was by John F. Kennedy, nearly 50 years ago in Los Angeles.

"So this is going to be something that most people haven't seen in their lifetime," he said.

But at the same time, "if you let expectations get out of control, and you can't satisfy them, you've got yourself into a big hole," he said.

Fabiani sees the timing of the vice presidential announcement as another gamble. By waiting this long, Obama succeeded in drawing out the suspense. But he also gave up days of coverage devoted to the newly minted Democratic ticket.

Now that news of Biden's selection is out, media coverage will turn quickly to the convention and the enduring saga about the role there of Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Fabiani said.

"They've waited until the last minute before the convention. . . . With the Clintons looming large at the convention on Monday and Tuesday, people are pretty quickly going to move to that," he said.

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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