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Candidates on Message

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By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, February 17, 2008

MUNICH -- Karl Wendl, an Austrian journalist and author and my neighbor at this Bavarian capital's annual conference on global security, gets a lot of fun out of the American election campaign for a mere $30 plus online charges.

Wendl is cranking up his BlackBerry as dinner speakers bid up the need for NATO solidarity on the Hindu Kush and deplore instability in the Balkans. He is absorbed instead by a personalized Barack Obama "blast" e-mail to him that he has saved and which is still soaked in Super Tuesday giddiness.

"Karl, today we won states and won delegates in every part of the country," Wendl's new best friend writes in a "yes, we can" exhortation that includes a link for this Austrian citizen to make another MasterCard donation to Obama.

Hillary Clinton's e-mail is more polite and is tenaciously focused on a different pronoun: "Dear Karl, the good news just keeps coming in . . . this great start would not have been possible without you. I thank you for your contribution." And then, on to a credit card link.

John McCain's "Must Read Message" thanks Karl, who gave $10 to each campaign, for joining a real conservative movement. It encourages new donations and regurgitates a lengthy -- no, endless -- newspaper article alluding to McCain's many virtues. In E-Mail Land as elsewhere, Obama obsesses on "we," Hillary is all about "you," McCain is all "I."

"Answer the McCain folks 'TLDR.' Too Long, Didn't Read," I suggest to Karl. Such e-mailese comes in handy at this year's Munich security conference and other international strategy gatherings that long ago earned the acronym BOGSATT -- Bunch of Guys Sitting Around a Table Talking.

The 2008 U.S. primaries have captured the world's interest, imagination and even direct involvement. The ease with which foreigners can now slip repeated donations to candidates guarantees them a growing bit part in the globe's most important election -- even though U.S. law prohibits foreign nationals from making such contributions.

Funds raised on the Internet flow into the other part of the air war that could determine this election: the organizing and broadcasting of images containing subliminal or unstated messages for a national television audience. But neither the mechanics of Internet fundraising nor the selling of the candidates, 2008, have received the media scrutiny they deserve.

This began to register with me when I tuned in to Obama's soaring, magnificent victory speech in South Carolina on Jan. 26. His mastery was impressive. And so was that of his image managers, I gradually concluded.

I marveled at the sea of white faces nodding approvingly or cheering wildly behind Obama. Then I realized that only a sprinkling of the black voters and volunteers who helped power the candidate's victory in my home state had made it onto the platform seats behind Obama, in range of the national eye.

Was it possible these voters had not come to celebrate their victory? Hardly. Reporters in the hall saw Obama campaign workers usher photogenic white families toward the platform as they entered. The scene they composed was an effective, calculated rebuttal of the Clintons' effort to portray Obama as a black candidate whose victory depended on race -- a way of killing "this possible racial narrative before it could be born," as Gal Beckerman wrote in a perceptive dispatch on the Columbia Journalism Review's Campaign Desk blog ( http://www.cjr.org).

Such manipulation has become so commonplace that few other journalists bothered to mention the Carolina campaign tableau in their coverage, even though Beckerman estimated that 85 percent of the crowd was African American.

Team Clinton is just as ruthless, if not as adept, in arranging on-message human backdrops. Clinton's stage managers in Iowa flanked her with the experience-heavy faces of her husband; his former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright; and retired Gen. Wesley Clark. But defeat in Iowa got them cut out of the picture in New Hampshire in favor of teenage girls. Now Clinton appears most often alone on stage.

For his part, John McCain is customarily surrounded on stage by members of the Republican establishment, which shot down his 2000 campaign. Other photo mates tend to be veterans and national security figures, put there to recall McCain's status as an authentic war hero and his promises to keep America safe.

Hustling contributions along the dollar-lined international avenues of the Internet and carefully orchestrating campaign scenes to speak to the subconscious seem to be accepted as business as usual today by journalists and campaign tacticians alike. It's enough to make Richard Nixon green with envy.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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