We already know Barack Obama isn't much of a bowler, and hunting seems like a stretch. Windsurfing is definitely out—as John Kerry learned, it's not exactly how the average Joe kicks back after a tough week at work. So just how will Obama deflect those charges of snooty liberal elitism? It may be as simple as not trying so hard.
By early March four years ago, conservative groups were already running ads against Sen. John Kerry. Those ads played up Kerry's inability to come across as an Everyman. One of the earliest attacks—bankrolled by the conservative group Citizens United—summed up what would become one of President George Bush's main themes. Modeled on Mastercard's famous ad campaign, the spot cataloged Kerry's expenses, from designer shirts and a $1 million luxury yacht to "four lavish mansions" and a beachfront estate valued at over $30 million. "Another rich liberal elitist from Massachusetts who claims he's a man of the people? Priceless," the ad concluded.
Right from the start, conservatives set the political image trap for Kerry, and he walked right into it. To appeal to rural working-class voters in Ohio, the candidate donned a hunting jacket and wielded a shotgun. The result was ridicule from his opponents and charges of phoniness from the chattering class.
Of the photo-op: "It should never have happened," says Bob Shrum, Kerry's third and final campaign manager and the man who has absorbed more criticism than perhaps anyone else for Kerry's missteps. "As soon as I saw him in that jacket, I thought, ‘This really isn't a good idea.'"
It was far from the worst of Kerry's mistakes, but it was emblematic of a seemingly deeper identity crisis for the Kerry campaign—one from which the candidate was never able to emerge.
Kerry's attempts to prove that he belonged in "Guyville," as Bush strategist Tucker Eskew termed it at the time, were met again and again with failure as the media pounced on every slip that suggested Kerry was more comfortable at Harvard or Berkeley than anywhere in-between.
Kerry went to a Boston Red Sox game where he got the name of the team's top slugger wrong. Worse, he went to Green Bay, Wisc., where he called one of the most storied stadiums in sports "Lambert Field." In a much odder recreational choice, Kerry went windsurfing off the coast of Nantucket, giving the Bush campaign a great visual for one of its most effective attack ads, which dubbed Kerry a flip-flopper.
Granted, most of Kerry's mistakes were aesthetic—like the furor that erupted when he ordered Swiss on his cheesesteak at a famous Philadelphia food stand—and had little to do with issues or policy positions. But it was painfully obvious that Kerry was going out of his way to shed his image problem, and in the process he only accentuated it.
"There were times when [Kerry] made it pretty easy," says Eskew, who was senior strategist for President Bush in 2004 and a former White House deputy communications director. "But you've seen this in every candidate the Democrats have nominated since 1988. It's a tendency to reward and reflect the liberal elites who drive a lot of the intellectual debate in this country, and when exposed, it drives middle Americans crazy."
Now Republicans are once again setting the trap, this time for Barack Obama, who they hope will be tempted to take the bait. Given his weak performance among white working-class voters in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania during the primary season, Obama will undoubtedly work to appeal to that constituency, and Republicans will try to spin it as pandering. Whether or not it works is largely up to Obama, says image consultant Evangelia Souris.
"If you have an image problem, one of the worst things you can do is call attention to it by actively trying to change it," says Souris, who has consulted for presidential candidates, both in the U.S. and Europe, as well as for members of Congress. And by trying to change it, Souris means hunting-jacket photo-ops and hokey campaign stops. "That always raises questions of authenticity."
Her advice for Obama: "He already has an image that works, and he connects to people well," she says. "So they just need to be confident with it."
Bob Shrum, for one, seems convinced the elitist playbook won't work in 2008. He believes that any chance the GOP had to capitalize on it went by the wayside when the Democratic Party nominated a man he calls the most politically gifted politician he has ever seen. "You're not going to turn a guy who was raised by a single mother, and who was smart enough to get into Harvard without his father making a phone call, into some kind of elitist," he says.
The Obama campaign has rarely misplayed the politics of the moment, Shrum says. "He has such a good sense of when to react and when not to react. That's really valuable."
Inherent in Shrum's evaluation is the acknowledgment that Obama has some natural assets that John Kerry did not. His speaking style appeals to voters' emotions—he doesn't have to strain to connect with a crowd. It's something some Republicans readily admit will make it harder to pigeonhole Obama as an out-of-touch politician.
"He has a certain mastery of stagecraft, and so far he's been able to use that to limit our exposure to his real ideas," Eskew says. "But it slips out behind closed doors." He was alluding to one of Obama's primary-season gaffes—a major slip that gives the GOP hope the Illinois senator is vulnerable to the elitist image trap.
Speaking at a private fundraiser in San Francisco in April, Obama said of economically frustrated voters in "small towns in Pennsylvania" and the Midwest: "It's not surprising, then, they get bitter—they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
It was a mistake that his then-opponent Hillary Clinton pounced on, and one some Republicans believe can have a real impact this fall.
For Republicans in the Keystone State, the "bitter remarks," as they have become known, appear to be one of the only talking points the state party has much confidence in. The remarks have been the subject of close to a dozen press releases from the party since Pennsylvania's primary on April 22.
"We don't miss an opportunity to remind people what Obama said about us," says state GOP Chairman Robert Gleason, who talks openly about the wounded Republican brand. He also acknowledges the 1 million voter registration advantage the Democratic Party now boasts in Pennsylvania.
Still, Gleason claims confidence that those "small town" voters will sink Obama come November. "When you look at the number of votes he got from some of these rural counties, he was getting 25 percent in most of them," Gleason says. "I've never seen a candidate do that poorly, ever. So don't tell me [his comments] didn't have a big effect."
One major difference from four years ago could be the Republican nominee's willingness to embrace the elitist charge. The Bush campaign sanctioned it wholeheartedly, crafting ads around the perception.
This past June, former White House aide Karl Rove likened Obama to "the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by." Asked by a reporter whether he agreed with the characterization, presumptive Republican nominee John McCain didn't take the bait.
"There are differences that we have on our outlook on major challenges we face, and obviously I think it's legitimate to point those out," McCain said. "But you can do that, and I believe I am doing that, in a respectful fashion. And it's not respectful for me to say that he is an elitist. I am not saying that. I am saying that we have a different approach to many issues."
Even if the McCain campaign doesn't embrace the line of attack, outside groups and others within the party will undoubtedly continue it.
Strategically, there is plenty the Obama camp can learn from John Kerry, but the key lessons may simply be to play the hand they are dealt, not make the candidate something he's not, and ultimately to respect the instincts of the candidate and his top advisers.
Throughout the summer months Obama will still be working to introduce and define his candidacy to voters, leaving plenty of opportunities for mistakes. But unless Obama steps in it big, the same tricks that worked against John Kerry may bounce right off this cycle's Democratic nominee. And even among the white working-class, middle America crowd, many of whom rejected Kerry four years ago, the GOP is in need of some new material.
"The economy is worse, the war is a mess. ... These are the people it impacts and all the Republicans have are the same old talking points," Shrum says. "It reminds me of what happened to the Democrats when we ran out of things to say and we were tired and frustrated. We just reverted back to the same tired material. That's what Republicans are doing right now, and it's going to sink them."
Shane D'Aprile is senior editor at Politics magazine.