The US Presidential Elections: Chat shows become the king-makers

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The Independent Online
IF THE Eighties was the decade of the sound-bite in US presidential politics, the Nineties will be remembered for the ascendancy of the talk-show. The preferred habitat of all the candidates in the final days of this campaign is not the rally stump or airport apron, but rather the television studio.

Every day now until election day on Tuesday, all three hopefuls will be on a non-stop sprint from one television event to another, with traditional rallies almost incidentally interspersed. Even President Bush, who earlier in the year scorned those 'weird talk-shows', has joined the game. The President's television schedule this week, for instance, features appearances on all three network breakfast programmes, on CNN's Larry King Live evening talk-show, on a country music cable network and on David Frost's interview programme on public television. Bill Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, will trek through an almost identical marathon.

It is a strategy that took hold early in the campaign. Mr Clinton points out that it was he who pioneered the first 'electronic town- meetings' with live phone-in appearances on local television during the New Hampshire primary in February. Both he and Mr Bush have made such town-meetings, usually carried just by local stations, a central part of their state- by-state visits.

Mr Clinton went on to make highly effective appearances in such off-beat locations as the MTV rock-video channel and on the late-night Arsenio Hall variety programme, where he wore sunglasses and played his saxophone. So far, Mr Bush has stuck to the more traditional formats.

The undoubted star of the talk- show phenomenon, from the other side of the microphone, is Larry King himself, the soft-ball political interviewer par excellence. It was on his show in February that Ross Perot first challenged Americans to give him the nod to run for the presidency, which millions duly did. Most of the main turning-points in Mr Perot's unorthodox campaign have since been signalled on subsequent appearances on Larry King Live. Meanwhile, all three candidates are making their pilgrimages to Mr King for 90 minutes each this week.

The appeal of the talk-show medium to candidates is easily understood. It offers them direct access to the public without the filtering of political pundits and the media generally. As he flays the press for bias against him, this has become especially attractive for President Bush. It has also offered the public itself a greater sense of participation.

'It's a very good avenue to reach the public live and unfiltered, and in longer segments than the evening news allows, the 20- second sound-bites and the editorialising that follows,' said Alixe Glen, a Bush campaign spokeswoman. 'It's a very effective way for the President to speak directly to voters.'

Mr Perot, meanwhile, has taken use of the airwaves a step further with the purchase not just of traditional 30-second and 60-second advertising spots but with what have been dubbed Perot 'infomercials' that last a full 30 minutes. Defying establishment wisdom, what have been little more than stern lectures about the plight of the economy have drawn huge, rapt audiences.

Such is the availability of the candidates to television viewers this year that some have suggested that traditional advertising drives, together costing the three candidates about dollars 100m ( pounds 64m), have been virtually eclipsed. However, the President's negative advertising, with the race now tightening, seems finally to be biting into Mr Clinton's lead.

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