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Roger Simon
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Clearing the Likeability Hurdle


"Hillary has a great belly laugh," Terry McAuliffe said. "Have you ever heard her belly laugh?"

Hmmm. Lemme think.

"She's tanned, she's rested, she's ..."

Gimme a second, gimme a second. OK, no. I have never heard Hillary Clinton's belly laugh. Though I am looking forward to it.

I was talking to McAuliffe about how important likeability is in presidential elections. Short answer: Very.

"It is going to be very tough for Hillary to win without likeability," McAuliffe said. "They (her aides) know that. We have to show the personal side, the likable side."

McAuliffe, a personal friend of the Clintons, was chairman of the Democratic Party under Bill and is now raising money for Hillary. McAuliffe's new book, "What a Party!", is practically an encyclopedia of what is likable and what is not in American politics.

And in this personality-driven age of ours, candidates can't seem to win the presidency without likeability.

Al Gore is likable now -- the planet isn't the only thing that has warmed up -- but when he ran for president in 2000, his demeanor became such an issue that his staff made up buttons that read, "I'm Al Gore, and I don't like you, either." (Gore occasionally wore one under his lapel.)

Roger Ailes, George H.W. Bush's media guru and now chairman of Fox News, once told me: "A presidential campaign is about cartoons. The media insist on them. They want every candidate's image summed up in a few words." In 1988, Bush started out as "The Wimp," but he managed to win because Mike Dukakis was worse: "The Cold Guy."

Maureen Dowd did a famous article on likeability on the front page of The New York Times in 1987, and afterward I asked Dowd what gave her the idea.

"I had traveled with Dukakis really early, maybe his first campaign trip to Iowa," she recalled, "and I asked him what I always ask people: 'What do you do for fun?'

"And he said, 'Black mulch.'

"And I said, 'Black mulch?'

"And he said, 'I like to put black mulch on my tomato plants.'

"And I thought to myself right then: This man will never be president."

The public gets all this.

People now know all about the cartoon and the importance of likeability.

"The media in particular have a bad habit of taking our candidates and giving them back to us in a caricature," a focus group participant told Dan Balz of The Washington Post last week. "Al Gore was a bumbling elitist. With Hillary, they have her painted as a cold fish."

Personally, I think the candidates have more to do with their likeability than the media, but the point is that a presidential candidate has to shape his or her own cartoon. And that cartoon has to be warm and likable.

I recently asked John Edwards about the importance of likeability, and he said: "If people have a positive response to you, then they are willing to listen to what you have to say. If the reaction to somebody is, 'I don't like them,' it colors everything. If I like them, I will look and see (whether) I want him to be my president. Likeability is an initial screen."

It doesn't matter if candidates are likable in real life. What matters is that they convey likeability in public.

"Voters always choose who is more likable," McAuliffe said. "They make the judgment: Do they want to watch this person in their living rooms for the next four years?"

And does Hillary get that?

"I think she understands that," he said. "I've got to tell you, I have spoken to her every day since she got in. She is in it for all the right reasons, and she is going to enjoy herself. She has to do that."

Candidates who actually enjoy what is a not very enjoyable process convey that enjoyment to voters, and that helps their likeability. In 1996, Bob Dole, a likable person in person but not on the stump, conveyed the desire to go home and go to bed.

Not Hillary.

"She's tanned, she's rested, she's ready, she's pumped!" McAuliffe said.



OK, OK, gimme an example of how likable she is.

"We were at Camp David once," McAuliffe said, "and my son ran over her in a golf cart, and she got up and said, 'Did Bill teach you to drive?'"

I like that.



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