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.
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.
But an early primary resurgence in New Hampshire put McCain back into the running, and by mid-January the senator held a double-digit lead in national polls. His unexpected success may come partly from his maintaining prickly positions on controversial issues, most notably his ardent support for the war in Iraq and his fierce criticism of the Bush administration's war strategy.
With a McCain-endorsed troop surge now turning the tide in Baghdad, public opinion may be turning for McCain as well, especially among independent voters who have opposed the war but now see progress.
The senator's emotional narrative about his own experience as a Navy pilot and five-year prisoner of war in Vietnam connects with voters on the campaign trail as well. McCain is often most moved when talking about the courage of soldiers he served alongside.
Republican Ron Paul
Ron Paul may register only about 4 percent in national polls, but the congressman from Texas has some of the most zealous supporters in the race. For them, support goes beyond likability to fervent devotion.
Paul's internet following is undeniable: The candidate raised an extraordinary $18 million in the last three months of 2007, most of it online. With a deliberately modest campaign operation and a handful of staffers, Paul depends on throngs of self-starter volunteers to get out his libertarian message: Supporters make T-shirts, wave banners over busy highways, and travel long distances to pass out homemade campaign literature.
The soft-spoken candidate instantly connects with his high-energy, young supporters, though in many ways he's not much like them: A highly disciplined candidate, Paul wears orthopedic shoes with modest suits and likes to go to bed early.
Still, when Paul's frail figure appeared on a tiny stage in a smoky Iowa bar last summer, the mostly twentysomething crowd chanted with ear-numbing intensity: "Live free or die hard!"
Least likely to connect
Democrat Hillary Clinton
Sen. Hillary Clinton doesn't usually inspire ear-numbing intensity at campaign events, but the highly polished front-runner's campaign staff does know how to work a crowd: Clinton events are well-orchestrated affairs, down to the arrangement of the chairs and the soundtrack on the speakers.
But Clinton struggles to exude the natural warmth of other candidates, and the senator's campaign advisers coach her on cultivating likability. Ironically, Clinton's greatest breakthrough may have come at one of her most unplanned moments.
After suffering a stinging third-place defeat in Iowa, Clinton's voice quaked when a voter in New Hampshire asked her how she kept up her pace every day. One day later, Clinton narrowly defeated Obama in a contest that polls predicted she would lose.
Political observers didn't agree on whether Clinton's vulnerability put her over the top, but they did agree on one thing: The candidate's likability issues wouldn't vanish over one incident.
Proof of that reality came quickly. The woman who asked Clinton the question in the now-famous New Hampshire encounter felt that Clinton's response seemed canned: She voted for Obama.
Republican Mitt Romney
Mitt Romney may be one of the hardest working candidates on the campaign trail, but the former governor of Massachusetts also struggles to connect with voters. The accomplished CEO is fond of PowerPoint presentations and mounds of data, and he often delivers analytical answers to heartfelt questions.
When a teenage girl at a campaign event recently asked Romney what he would do on his first day as president, the candidate briskly replied: "I'd assemble the right team." Assembling the right team is a crucial task, but perhaps not the most inspiring answer for a future-or present-voter.
Personal connection may be the one element the heavily funded and meticulously organized Romney campaign can't produce. "I think it's obvious that Romney doesn't make the emotional connection for whatever reason," political analyst Sabato told WORLD. "But I don't think he can change personalities at this point."
Most likely to get stuck
In the quest for connectability, the remaining field of presidential candidates seems stuck somewhere in the middle. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani was widely considered a presidential front-runner early on, but his unconventional strategy of ignoring early primary states has left many voters cold and Giuliani's poll numbers tumbling.
Republican Fred Thompson launched to high expectations as well, drawing in voters with his folksy, plain-spoken message and his baritone Southern drawl. But even as Thompson adds meat to his political platform, he can't manage to sustain on a large scale the enthusiasm he initially ignited.
Democrat John Edwards has struggled to ignite enthusiasm, winning more viewers to a YouTube video of his hair-combing than to campaign events. The former senator tries to connect with voters by emphasizing his humble beginnings, but he hasn't garnered enthusiasm in the state where he was born: Less than two weeks before the Democratic primary in South Carolina, Edwards trailed in third place by nearly 26 points.
Sabato told WORLD that connectability is important to voters but says it's one element in a long list of qualities voters seek: "It's always a matter of comparison shopping."
In the end, "We buy a package," said Sabato, "personality aspects that we like, and some we wish could change." He adds: "But that's been true for every president since George Washington."