Oprah factor may decide US presidency

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The Independent US

When Joe Lieberman, the Democratic running mate, was midway through a surprisingly melodic rendition of "My Way" during the Conan O'Brian Show on NBC a few nights ago, he paused for a second and said, "I don't know why I'm doing this". To which the savvy viewer would have replied, "Sure you do."

When Joe Lieberman, the Democratic running mate, was midway through a surprisingly melodic rendition of "My Way" during the Conan O'Brian Show on NBC a few nights ago, he paused for a second and said, "I don't know why I'm doing this". To which the savvy viewer would have replied, "Sure you do."

This is the new imperative of presidential campaigning in America: it is not enough for the candidates to show up for the formal debates - the first between Al Gore and George W Bush is 10 days away - or to strut their stuff at their parties' summer conventions. They must also do the talk shows.

For the past two weeks, Mr Gore and Mr Bush have been dropping in and out of the network chat studios at a ferocious pace to present viewers with their softer, sappier sides. This week alone, Mr Bush shed a little tear with Oprah Winfrey and got folksy with the equally popular Regis Philbin. Mr Gore did Oprah before him and gave her a kiss, though not quite in the manner of the one he gave his wife at the convention.

Call it the "Oprahfication" of the election process. The networks love it, as do the campaigns. "It's new, it's novel and it's noteworthy for getting people engaged in the process," said Lynn Vavreck, a professor of government at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

Some might blame Bill Clinton for the phenomenon. One of the most enduring images of the 1992 campaign was of the governor of Arkansas playing his saxophone on MTV and confessing that he prefers boxer shorts. (Mr Lieberman sings more convincingly than the President toots.)

The lure of the chat show for the campaigns is not hard to fathom. Both main candidates, and Mr Gore especially, leap at any chance to de-wonk their images. Almost no time is spent talking about issues on these programmes. When the host of The Late Show with David Letterman tried with Mr Gore, the vice-president deflected him with, "You're such a wonk".

With the candidates battling hard for women voters, they rush for the daytime shows, which have lopsidedly female audiences. Oprah alone boasts 7 million viewers a day.

It also gives the candidates a chance at humour and self-deprication. Late night comic Jay Leno moved on to politics in his monologue on Tuesday this way: "Now, according to the latest polls, Al Gore is the handsomest, smartest, most qualified - what?" The camera panned to reveal the man holding Mr Leno's cue cards. Guess who it was. "It's the man who invented the cue card, Al Gore. Wow!"

Mr Gore had rushed to the Leno studio in Burbank just hours after Mr Bush had turned in what his aides thought was a masterful performance on Oprah (that tear). It was Mr Gore's third television appearance in less than a week.

Just what the viewers/voters are gleaning from the chat TV war is uncertain. If they watched Mr Bush on Oprah they will have learned that he does not like "psychobabble." that his favourite food is peanut butter and jam and that he believes in fate. His cheeks got wet informing us that the birth of his twin daughters had been the "defining moment" of his life. All this means, of course, that Mr Gore and Mr Bush more than ever come across as being identical.

The candidates can moonlight as TV guests all they want. But will it change the election result? Professor Vavreck says it "gets people involved and tuned in". But, she adds: "Is the fact that Gore and Bush appeared on Oprah going to make young women go out and register to vote? I doubt it."

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