Changing Their Stripes
Step right up, and watch the candidates re-create themselves
Chameleon candidates are nothing new. In 1968, eight years after he lost the presidency to John F. Kennedy, a "new" Richard Nixon emerged, supposedly more open, more engaging, a bit hip. The "new Nixon" even did a cameo role on the hit TV series Laugh-In, uttering a signature phrase of the show-the very un-Nixonian "Sock it to me." It was part of a larger effort to dispel his "Tricky Dick" image, and it worked; Nixon went on to win the presidency that fall.
Many Americans eventually concluded there never really was a "new" Nixon. And since then, the efforts of presidential candidates to "rebrand" themselves-developing new personalities, taking new stands-have been greeted with skepticism. "People are looking for authenticity," says William Galston of the Brookings Institution.
That may be true. But it hasn't stopped candidates from trying to change their stripes, again, as they jockey for position. Candidates are raising colossal amounts of money. And they will use those funds to override previous images through advertising campaigns and microtargeting of key constituencies through their websites, E-mail, bloggers, and in other ways, says Frank Donatelli, former White House political director for Ronald Reagan. For Rutgers political scientist Ross Baker, the candidates' performances call to mind a crazy sort of TV reality show featuring surgical makeovers. "What you're seeing now is a series of political 'tummy tucks' and Botox injections," Baker told U.S. News-and sometimes much more.
THE LEADING REPUBLICANS
Rudy Giuliani. As mayor of New York for eight years, Rudy Giuliani reflected his city by governing as a social liberal. Now, as he woos conservatives and clings to a dwindling lead in the polls, he is getting more scrutiny. Giuliani hasn't changed his mind on the basic issues-he's backing gay rights, gun control, and a woman's right to choose an abortion. He recently conceded that he still supports publicly funded abortions for poor women-anathema to many antiabortion conservatives who could be pivotal in the nomination fight.
But Giuliani offers an alternative image as well. He says he has always been conservative on other issues, such as cutting taxes and fighting crime. And he argues that he favors strict constructionists on the Supreme Court, such as Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, who last week were part of the 5-to-4 majority that upheld the congressional ban on "partial-birth" abortions (a ruling that Giuliani said he supported, confusing some Republicans about his pro-choice views).
Still, Giuliani's rebranding has impressed political professionals. "Rather than change on issues where he was liberal, he is emphasizing the record where he was conservative," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "You get a more conservative profile without embarrassing flip-flops."
John McCain. Arizona Sen. John McCain rocketed to national attention in 2000 as a maverick reformer who took on his party's establishment. He lost the GOP nomination to George W. Bush and decided to do things differently. This time around, he is recruiting former Bush contributors and trying to become the establishment candidate himself, partly by his backing of Bush's policies in Iraq, which, unfortunately for McCain, have become increasingly unpopular. Says political scientist Baker: "His makeover really involves his relationship to the president, whose constituency he wants to inherit." McCain also has jeopardized his reputation for independence by catering to Christian conservative leaders he once derided. This has hurt his once strong support among independents and Democrats who helped him win the 2000 New Hampshire primary.