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.
And McCain is no longer an unflaggingly upbeat campaigner. Instead, he often turns somber in conceding enormous challenges in Iraq and arguing for perseverance and sacrifice. "He's become a very bleak candidate," says Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. Voters generally prefer optimism-the outlook McCain projected in 2000.
Mitt Romney. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney knows well the perils of flip-flopping. His father, George Romney, a three-term governor of Michigan, was a Republican presidential hopeful in the 1968 cycle-before he ran into trouble for changing from Vietnam War supporter to critic. In August 1967, he told a television reporter that he first backed the war because he believed the military officials who briefed him on a tour of South Vietnam. "When I came back from Vietnam, I had just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get," Romney said with embarrassing candor. His image never recovered from the perception that he had been gulled.
Mitt Romney is having similar problems of consistency, drawing criticism for changing his views on abortion and gay rights in order to please conservatives-even for exaggerating his experience as a hunter. Says Democratic pollster Garin: "It's an interesting commentary on how much the Republicans feel they have to change to suit their base, and Romney is the poster child for chameleon politics in this cycle."
What makes things tougher for Romney and other candidates is how easy it's become for the mainstream media and the bloggers to find contrasts in a candidate's past and present positions, thanks to technological advances in archiving, the Internet, and YouTube.
Romney aides say that the former governor based his shifts on careful study of the issues to better match up with his personal convictions and that he isn't an opportunist. But his policy reverses seem to be one reason why Romney has remained mired under 10 percent support in the GOP opinion polls. Even the Doonesbury comic strip makes fun of his shifting views.
THE LEADING DEMOCRATS
Hillary Clinton. The former first lady has been trying to reintroduce herself to the public as a warmer, more engaging, less threatening personality than she seemed to be as first lady. "Once Americans really get to know her, they will like her," says a Clinton strategist. So the New York senator has been appearing in citizen forums and mingling happily with voters, to show her softer side.
Clinton has also been trying to demonstrate her commitment to national security, where Democrats have in the past come up short. For example, she has refused to repudiate her Senate vote authorizing President Bush to invade Iraq, even though antiwar Democrats are angry with her for it. "Hillary has not really shifted that much on policy," says a Democratic strategist not affiliated with any campaign. She bills herself as a problem solver. "The caricature of Hillary that developed a long time ago was incorrect at the time and is certainly wrong today," says Joe Lockhart, former White House press secretary for Bill Clinton. "She has been a moderate Democratic senator since she walked in, not a crazy liberal."
Adds Dan McGinn, a business consultant and specialist in public image-making: "Giuliani is trying to walk the line by saying, 'I am who I am-just look at the whole record.' Hillary is trying to say, 'I'm not who you think I am.'"
Barack Obama. Last year, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was barely known as a freshman senator, but since then, his rise has been meteoric, thanks in part to the public desire for a fresh face. Obama has emerged as Clinton's main competitor in the polls, billing himself as a new-generation leader and an African-American who has wide appeal. "Obama is saying, "I am not like these other folks,'" says McGinn, and Obama advisers argue that the less he acts like a Washington politician, the better he will do.
"He hasn't been in national politics long enough to have acquired a brand, and his past doesn't hem him in," says a Democratic strategist not working for any campaign. "He has campaigned on character and charisma. ... What people are uncertain of is if he has the knowledge to make decisions day after day as president. And he's never run anything other than his Senate office."
John Edwards. In 2004, John Edwards was a sunny optimist who rarely attacked his opponents. As a presidential candidate, he called for reducing the disparities between rich and poor. But he lost the nomination and became John Kerry's vice presidential running mate, requiring him to take a back seat in every way. Now, after two years out of elective office, the former North Carolina senator says he has a better understanding of what the country wants, and he is running from the left, as a strong anti-Iraq war Democrat who advocates "transformational change."
"He's changed the most of anyone in the Democratic field," says a senior party strategist. "On the positive side, here's the guy who had time to think and figure out how to address the issues, but on the negative side, here's the guy who decided he had to get to where the party wants its candidates to be for 2008."
More broadly, the political recalibrations really have just begun. When candidates win their parties' nominations, they tend to rebrand themselves yet again, moving toward the center to capture as many voters as possible in the general election. "We'll need a wiring diagram," says Baker, "to figure out where they are."
This story appears in the April 30, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.