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Friday, 26 November, 1999, 20:18 GMT
US embraces cult of personality
George W Bush, looking for support in New Hampshire George W Bush seeking support in New Hampshire

By Nick Bryant in Washington

Campaigning for the United States presidential elections appears to be turning out to be a presidential popularity contest.

Al Gore has a lot of virtues that never seem to come out in public
EJ Dion, author
Over the past few days, there has been a flurry of new television advertisements and they seem mostly about the candidates' personalities.

Dignity and honour are defining issues, with each candidate's personal history providing the main narrative for the race.

McCain: Character and courage are his hallmark themes McCain: 'Makes George W Bush look weak and flabby'
And no candidate has a more compelling story than maverick senator John McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for five-and-a-half years.

Character and courage are his hallmark themes and America seems ripe for his candidacy.

"He comes across to people as a man who bore terrible burdens," says presidential biographer Robert Dallick.

America is looking for real leadership, not a slick, overly polished candidate
Elizabeth Drew, political commentator
"He appears to have a commitment to campaign finance reform, to principles, to higher callings, and George Bush alongside of him looks relatively weak, young and rather flabby in terms of strength of character."

Sporting celebrity

Former basketball star Senator Bill Bradley is trading on his sporting celebrity and a reputation for fair play.

With spin doctors kept on the sidelines, the game plan is simple - to sell himself as the anti-politician's politician. The result is, Democrats seem to be madly for Bradley.

Bradley: 'The anti-politician's politician' Bradley: 'The anti-politician's politician'
"America today is looking for real leadership," says veteran commentator Elizabeth Drew. "It's not looking for a slick, overly polished, but you don't quite know who they really are kind of candidate.

"We're always reacting against past experience, and I think people are looking for someone who they feel will not disappoint them," she says.

Who am I?

But the problem for Al Gore, it seems, is deciding what his character is.

Advisors are telling him to wear new earth-colour suits and distance himself from the president. The man who claims to have invented the internet seems constantly to be reinventing himself

"For a while, he had six pollsters on the payroll and somebody said 'Who tells him what to think on the seventh day?'," says columnist and author EJ Dion.

"What's funny about Gore is people who've known him for a long time know that he can be funny, thoughtful and self-deprecating. He has a lot of virtues that never seem to come out in the public sphere."

Life is more straightforward for George W Bush, which is the underlying theme of his latest ad. It shows him holding two babies and kissing his wife, making the point that in post-Monica America, it is the man in the Oval Office who counts.

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See also:
06 Nov 99 |  Americas
Bush no whizz on foreign quiz
11 Jun 99 |  Americas
Game plan for the White House
28 Oct 99 |  Americas
Gore-Bradley duel fails to inspire press
23 Oct 99 |  From Our Own Correspondent
Gore's battle for nomination
26 Sep 99 |  Americas
Bradley ahead of Gore
08 Sep 99 |  Americas
Bradley enters White House race

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