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Candidates' Campaign Caricatures Emerge

John Edwards once lived in the heart of Washington's Georgetown district, was squired around the Capitol by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and led the presidential field in fundraising thanks to donations from trial lawyers.

Today the Democrat is running for president as an anti-Washington candidate who will take public financing to avoid the influence of special interest groups.

Mitt Romney used to greet illegal immigrants who worked on his yard with a friendly "Buenos dias" and expressed moderate positions on abortion rights and gay rights. Today the Republican is running for the presidency as a strict opponent of illegal immigration and a conservative on social issues.

Those are just two of the campaign caricatures to emerge in the 2008 election cycle, a White House race overflowing with simplified depictions that belie some of the candidates' life histories or define the rest of their records in shorthand.

Political consultants and marketing experts often strive for bumper-sticker labeling, but the current White House campaign has gone even further, devolving into a battle of philosophical code words and a relentless focus on issues buttressing those themes.

Rudy Giuliani is anti-terrorism. Hillary Rodham Clinton is experience. John McCain is pro-military. Barack Obama is an outsider. Fred Thompson is the true conservative.

"You need to define yourself in the minds of the voters in a way that doesn't allow your competitors to define you," said Bruce Newman, a DePaul University marketing professor and author of several books on political marketing.

Newman said such image-making is especially easy this election cycle, because neither a sitting president nor vice president is seeking re-election to the White House.

In the absence of an incumbent candidate, the Republican and Democratic contenders are not forced to define themselves in contrast to a sitting officeholder.

"That would narrow the potential alternative niches that one could define for themselves," the professor said.

Edwards has been among the most aggressive in trying to define - or redefine - himself. The 2004 vice presidential nominee moved back to North Carolina from Washington after completing his lone term in the Senate, and the multimillionaire went on to found a poverty center at the University of North Carolina.

The candidate who agreed to use military force in Iraq now labels his October 2002 vote a mistake and criticizes Clinton, the New York senator leading the Democratic field, for not working hard enough on a troop pullout.

"Every member of Congress who believes this war must end, from Senators Obama and Clinton to Senator (John) Warner, has a moral responsibility to use every tool available to them, including a filibuster, to force the president to change course," Edwards said last month in a statement.

The former senator has been similarly critical on the subject of campaign financing.

Last month, he announced he would accept public financing for his primary campaign, after watching his fundraising total decline quarter by quarter from $13 million to $9 million to $7 million. He did the same when he ran for president four years ago, when he went from leading the field with $7.4 million in first-quarter receipts -
boosted by his fellow trial lawyers - to trailing John Kerry and Howard Dean with only $2.6 million in third-quarter receipts.

"It's time to get back to focusing on the issues that matter to the American people," said David Bonior, Edwards' campaign manager. "That's why John Edwards has decided to play by the rules that were designed to ensure fairness in the election process by capping his campaign spending and seeking public financing."

Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, has spent less than a single day in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but during the course of his presidential campaign, he's tried to project a strong foreign policy image with a sharp focus on Iran and its hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In January, Romney called for economic sanctions like South Africa faced in its apartheid era. Last month, he went into overdrive as Ahmadinejad visited the United States to address the United Nations. Romney said he should be indicted for inciting genocide, railed against the Iranian president's request to visit ground zero and lambasted Columbia University for inviting him to speak.

"Instead of entertaining Ahmadinejad, we should be indicting him," the Republican said in a statement.

On the domestic front, Romney has also tried to brand himself as an economic citizen-soldier, building on his career as an entrepreneur and businessman before trading the world of venture capital for his single term in political office.

"My life has not been politics; I spent four years in politics as the governor of Massachusetts," he said Thursday in Merrimack, N.H. "I want to go to Washington because I believe what I've learned as a citizen and a businessperson and as the guy who helped run the Olympics, that would help me be a better president."

Newman, the marketing professor, said creating labels like "outsider" or "businessman" allows candidates to find a common denominator with potential supporters.

"They can't be all things to all people," he said. "They have to be something to the people they are trying to attract."