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Campaign 2008 | Voters may want a candidate who does not exist, but for now they'll take him, or her, or him, or some of each

Issue: "Signs and wonders," Jan. 26, 2008

Sen. John McCain may be a decorated Vietnam War veteran, but the Republican presidential candidate is also legendary for his arsenal of corny jokes.

McCain likes to tell audiences that Congress spends money "like a drunken sailor," and then quips about a drunken sailor who took offense at being compared to Congress. He addresses curiosity about his age (71) and his facial scars (from skin cancer) by telling crowds: "I'm older than dirt and have more scars than Frankenstein."

Corny jokes and self-deprecating humor may not be the heartbeat of presidential campaigns, but in the early weeks of a freewheeling primary season, they worked for McCain. The Arizona senator upset Republican opponent and one-time front-runner Mitt Romney in the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 8 before losing to Romney in the Michigan primary on Jan. 15.

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All that leaves political observers declaring that voters want "change" in the 2008 elections. But McCain and other come-from-behind candidates showed that voters may want something else: connection.

As crucial early contests look to be won by varied candidates, both parties are grappling to find the ideal nominee. Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, told WORLD: "If both parties had their druthers, they probably would construct their nominee with pieces of the various candidates."

Since that's impossible, voters in small, early primary states have looked beyond candidates' policy positions to their personal ability to connect. They discovered that the candidates most likely to succeed were also the least likely to connect. Suddenly, huge campaign coffers and high visibility weren't enough.

With most primaries still to come, including 20-plus contests on Feb. 5, predicting an outcome is impossible. But at least one thing is clear: Many voters are gravitating toward the candidates that seem most at ease with themselves and most able to make politics personal. Many voters believe that kind of personal style is more than entertaining or amusing; it's also a key ingredient for a good leader.

With every candidate looking for a way to stand out from the crowd, here's a look at the race for connectability:

Most likely to be liked

Democrat Barack Obama

It may be hard to imagine Sen. Hillary Clinton grooving to a smooth beat on a sound stage with talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, but Sen. Barack Obama pulled it off with finesse late last year. Obama isn't the only candidate working the talk show circuit, but he does seem the most at ease with the chore.

Ease and affability mark Obama's style at most campaign appearances, and supporters gravitate to his ability to fire up a crowd. When Obama rallied an audience to chant: "Fired up . . . Ready to go," at an event in Atlanta's World Congress Center last fall, thousands of voices sounded like thunder in the windowless ballroom.

Two months later, Oprah Winfrey enshrined his populist appeal when she arrived in South Carolina to campaign with the senator: Nearly 30,000 people packed into the Williams-Brice football stadium in Columbia, S.C., to see the pair. Clemson University political scientist Dave Woodard told WORLD that kind of turnout that early "is just astounding."

Republican Mike Huckabee

Huckabee's supporters codified the former Arkansas governor's affability into a campaign slogan early on: "I Like Mike" buttons, bumper stickers, and T-shirts showed up at campaign rallies and events long before Huckabee made a surge in the polls and unexpectedly won Iowa's first caucus of the year.

In public, Huckabee woos crowds with his down-to-earth nature and witty humor. In private settings, Huckabee treats supporters like campaign insiders, talking strategy and making them feel like part of the plan.

The candidate also manages to make politics personal even under hostile conditions. At a press conference during the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., last fall, one of the reporters in the room was Max Blumenthal, a left-leaning journalist making a film lampooning the candidates and participants at the conference.

Blumenthal prodded Huckabee about his observation that illegal immigrants are filling thousands of jobs left open in an American work force significantly reduced by millions of abortions over the last 30 years.

Blumenthal inquired: "Can you explain how the fetuses that have been aborted would be cutting lawns and making beds today?" Huckabee replied evenly, "I don't know what they'd be doing. They might be university professors." Then stretching his hand toward Blumenthal, he added: "They might be reporters."

Republican John McCain

Sen. John McCain may be the most surprising member of the most likable group. Just last summer, the senator's campaign seemed near a painful end: Funds were drying up, staff members were being cut, and poll numbers were dropping.


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