Candidates Step In From the Cold

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 20, 2007

After months of tough talk and assaults, the presidential candidates are striking a decidedly softer tone as Christmas approaches, and unleashing a flood of television ads designed to warm up their image.

Sen. Barack Obama has his two daughters wish viewers happy holidays. Rudolph W. Giuliani shares a seat with Santa Claus. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton arranges presents for the country under her tree. And an ad for Mitt Romney recounts his role in helping a colleague find his missing daughter.

The shift in tone is driven in part by the Iowa caucuses taking place just two days after New Year's, but also by the candidates' determination to humanize themselves after blanketing the airwaves with hard-edged issue ads. Embedded in the milder spots are messages that they have been forging throughout the campaign.

Before a Christmas tree and fireplace, Obama (D-Ill.) reinforces his coming-together message: "In this holiday season, we are reminded that the things that unite us as a people are more powerful and enduring than anything that sets us apart. And we all have a stake in each other, in something larger than ourselves."

A sweater-clad Mike Huckabee, in front of a tree and a bookcase that somehow looks like a cross, emphasizes the religious nature of the holiday, as befits a former Baptist preacher courting evangelical Republican voters. "Are you about worn out of all the television commercials you've been seeing?" he says. "Mostly about politics. I don't blame you." The former Arkansas governor says it is nice to "just remember that what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ and being with our family and our friends."

Giuliani dresses up his standard positions as a list of holiday wishes: "I wish for peace with strength. Secure borders. A government that spends less than it takes in. Lower taxes for our businesses and families." But the former New York mayor injects a note of levity with a cameo appearance by Santa Claus, who erupts in a ho-ho-ho at the Republican's wish that all the candidates just get along.

Clinton, who has been running commercials featuring her mother and daughter, took a similar approach. With music from "Carol of the Bells," an ad shows the New York Democrat placing cards on gifts under her tree, labeled "Universal Health Care," "Alternative Energy," "Bring the Troops Home" and so on. The punch line, such as it is: "Where did I put universal pre-K?"

Former senator John Edwards strikes the most somber tone, using the holiday to retool his message of speaking for the disenfranchised. In front of his tree, the North Carolina Democrat says that one in four homeless people are veterans and that 37 million Americans live in poverty. "Who speaks for them? We do. This is the season of miracles, of faith and love. So let us promise together: You will never be forgotten again."

Another tactic for breaking through the static is to focus on the plight of individuals. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, unveiled an unusually emotional ad yesterday in which a former business partner, Robert Gay, recounts what happened in 1996 when his 14-year-old daughter disappeared in New York for three days.

Romney, says Gay, "stepped forward to take charge. He closed the company and brought almost all our employees to New York. He said, 'I don't care how long it takes -- we're going to find her.' He set up a command center and searched through the night. The man who helped save my daughter was Mitt Romney." That is a very different portrait from the one the Republican has painted while boasting about his experience as a venture capitalist.

Sen. John McCain's signature issue has long been the Iraq war, so it is hardly surprising that he would make an ad about recent military progress there. But the spot is framed as a testimonial to the Arizona Republican's character.

"One man warned us we were failing in Iraq, and told us how we could turn things around," the narrator says. "More troops and a different strategy. He took a lot of heat, but he stood by what he knew was right. Today that strategy is working."

McCain's strategy seems to be not so much one of softening his image, but of trying to convince voters that he's more courageous truth-teller than maverick.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company