U. Pittsburgh Profs Review Election '08 Primary Players

This story was written by Estelle Tran, The Pitt News
As Pitt communications professor Gerald Shuster watched the presidential candidates' speeches after Tuesday's New Hampshire primaries, he saw glimmers of strategies used by past U.S. presidents.

"Obama gets away with trying to emulate John F. Kennedy. Mitt Romney on the Republican side is the only other one who could get away with that. Edwards could possibly do it but not as well as Obama or Romney," Shuster said.

But the Kennedy-like charm that Shuster saw was not enough to help Sen. Barack Obama or former governor Mitt Romney overcome Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. John McCain, who won their party's New Hampshire primary elections.

Though Shuster has never heard Obama compare himself with Kennedy, he notices the references.

"He just quotes him a lot. He references him saying things like, 'Imagine telling President John F. Kennedy that we couldn't reach the moon.' It is easy to use hindsight to validate it, but before that it was a dream," he said.

Watching the Republican speeches, Shuster also saw several attempts at imitating Ronald Reagan.

"Republicans are always trying to be like Ronald Reagan. It even gets to the point when they go back and forth saying, 'You ain't no Ronald Reagan.'"

The charismatic presidents Kennedy and Reagan seem to be the paragons of their parties. However, according to Shuster, McCain and some other candidates shy away from the competition to emulate them.

"McCain is not a great speaker. He is not dynamic and will not spellbind an audience, but people listen to him because they respect [him]," he said.

Pat Dunham, an associate political science professor at Duquesne University, agrees that candidates must be themselves, but at times they must change their strategies to remain viable.

"Hillary Clinton had made some adjustments, but I think it's something that candidates often do. In the end, the candidates are who they are," Dunham said.

Shuster believes that Clinton's move to become more personable helped her earn the "surprise" victory in New Hampshire.

"She is perceived as being business-focused, cold and removed from her audience. Whatever someone's opinion might be about her, she took on a persona that is much more human and that helped her," he said.

Contrary to Shuster's view, Dunham was not surprised by Clinton's victory in New Hampshire and does not attribute her victory entirely to her recent humanizing turn.

"What we had was inadequate reporting. We did not know how big the undecided portion was," Dunham said.

Some people were concerned that Oprah took votes away from Clinton when she endorsed Obama, but Dunham believes that is a poor generalization.

"The world's vote is very difficult to generalize. It must be broken down into states and communities. There are a lot of progressives in the Democratic Party and women make up a portion of the progressives. I would be surprised if Oprah was a real factor in New Hampshire since the people [of that state] tend to be independent," she said.

The New Hampshire primaries not only reaffirmed the McCain and Clinton campaigns, but also shook up their fellow candidates' strategies.

"Edwards started to align himself with Obama and give tough criticism to Hillary. He needs to adjust himself again to be John Edwards again," Shuster said. "I think some of the others are nearing the ends of their legitimacy as candidates, [namely] Fred Thompson, [Bill] Richardson, and even [Rudy] Giuliani."

Shuster also believes that Obama needs to take a new approach in his speeches.

"Obama's biggest problem is that he needs to stop talking in general terms. He needs to lose the platitude and stop talking about a time for change," Shuster sid. "Some politicians get too lazy and say the same things to all. They're not reading the polls. People don't want to hear about the war or health care as much as the economy."

Dunham said she believes that Obama's strategy is working for now.

"I think modern campaigns in the mass media are sharp in crafting a message and brief, unfortunately. It is the age of sound bytes that last 10 seconds long. It's a great oversimplification," Dunham said.

The issues that the candidates tackle are many and not simple. Candidates will cater to the issues that their parties are more concerned with.

This is why the Republicans are more vocal about the issue of immigration, according to Dunham. Though it is still early in the race, she believes that the Republican Party will need to pick someone more moderate to compete in the general election.

With Clinton and McCain hot off the New Hampshire primaries, Dunham is interested to see if there will be a senatorial showdown.

"We know that since the 1960s, we've elected governors or former governors. That'll be true until it's not," Dunham said laughing. "They are in an executive position and are able to shine in ways that senators who are one in 100 can't. Plus, Congress is never a popular institution in this country."
© 2008 The Pitt News via U-WIRE