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Issue Date:  December 28, 2007

In search of exposure

Those at the bottom of the presidential pack, overlooked and undercovered, get their say here, briefly


Sharon Manitta hasn’t had a day off since August and you can hear it in her voice.

-- Illustrations by MCT/Chris Ware

Rep. Dennis Kucinich

“There’s no stopping,” said the communications director for Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, a candidate in the Democratic presidential primaries. “No matter where you are in the race, there’s always something next.”

Sen. Mike Gravel

All that work and Kucinich regularly polls in the margin of error for not existing as a candidate. But he’s usually ahead of former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, whose claim to fame is wry humor in the early debates. Before they stopped inviting him.

“The main corporate media doesn’t give us time because they have their own personal agendas,” Manitta said. “Dennis doesn’t play to them, so you don’t hear as much about him.”

Most of the candidates below the elite top tier think the media shortchanges them and their ideas. And if reaction in some national newspapers is any measure, there are more than a few voters who agree.

“The American media are cheating voters by attempting with their coverage to narrow our choices rather than to inform us fully on the stands held by every candidate,” Bernie Vetsch complained last month in a letter to the Public Editor of The New York Times.

NCR took a look at who might be truly slighted by the media. Who’s not getting a fair shake, rather than just not connecting with the voters?

First we eliminated the front-runners -- some would call them the early-anointed. Hillary Clinton, Rudolph Giuliani, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, John Edwards and John McCain.

Then we eliminated three more candidates. Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., and Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., have racked up years of Sunday talk show appearances and long profiles in major publications. And former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., was hyped as the savior of the Republican primaries before he actually entered the race and began slipping in the polls. Can these three really blame the media?

And there’s the special case of Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, whose poll numbers and press coverage have suddenly shot upwards. A month ago, he would have made the cut of overlooked hopefuls. How did he make his move? Was it the Baptist minister’s stand on faith in the public square? Was it his hard-line position on border control? Eh, maybe not.

“Voters see him as an affable guy whose conservative beliefs have been integrated into his life’s work and political vocation,” blogs Diane Winston, the Knight chair in media and religion at the University of Southern California. “Huckabee, like Obama, appeals to people who don’t agree with all his policies. That’s because both men seem genuine and comfortable in their own skin.”

Does that mean the other second-tier candidates seem a little squirmy in their own skin? Candidates like Gravel don’t mention epidermal issues so much as the media “manufacturing consent” by handpicking who gets the proper skin care -- i.e., exposure.

Rep. Tom Tancredo

Take a recent Sunday for Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., who protested the “perilous consequences” of a bilingual society by boycotting the Spanish-language debate aired on Univision, a Spanish-language cable network.

According to Google News, Tancredo’s decision generated 47 stories by 6 p.m. EST that day. Not bad, until you consider the fact that Oprah Winfrey generated 1,578 news stories that same day stumping for Obama.

Call them Huckabee wannabes, call them Don Quixotes, just call them by the right name and please plug their book.

“It’s called The Courage to Survive,” says Manitta, referring to Kucinich’s autobiography. “It is such a good way to understand what Dennis has overcome to end up here. Not enough people know his story.”

Lost with these underexposed candidates are their ideas. But ideas are a lot like candidates in the primary -- they are narrowed to a fine point before most voters can even blink. Iraq, Iran, immigration. The I’s have it this year.

But wait! There’s more. Not only did we want to name lesser-known candidates, but also give them a bit of space to air lesser-considered topics, before they begin fading into the lesser-coveted positions of public office.

“If we’re going to do something, it has to happen in New Hampshire,” said Gravel’s press secretary Alex Colvin.

That’s Jan. 8, so Gravel will need to scramble to get his message out on instituting a national sales tax and repealing the income tax. The Democrat -- who in 1971 exposed military secrets during the Vietnam War by inserting 4,100 pages of the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record -- is now pushing for what is considered a classic Republican idea.

“The U.S. income tax system is unfair and regressive,” he asserts in his position paper, “because Americans earning less than $97,400 pay a larger portion of their income in taxes than those who earn more than $97,400.”

Going against the grain should be a good way to garner attention. But it hasn’t worked that way for Gravel or for several other candidates.

Rep. Duncan Hunter

Like Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who has run afoul of fiscal conservatives by harshly criticizing free trade agreements.

“American workers ... are asked to compete in an unfair environment,” Hunter writes on his Web site, “against other workers who make only a fraction of a living wage and are employed by companies that face few, if any, responsibilities to the environment or the long-term prospects of their employees.”

That shouldn’t be enough to scare off conservatives, however, given that Hunter wants to stay the course in Iraq, wants to build walls on the border and claims El Salvador is a shining example of how democracy can flourish with a little help from the United States. Still, he’s been running in place.

Go against the grain, get ignored. Go with it, get ignored. And some of the candidates end up in grain fields that are getting ignored in their own right.

Sen. Chris Dodd

A good example is the position on daycare offered by Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. It’s not a topic that gets much attention, but his campaign claims it affects more than 28 million children.

“The high cost of child care erodes the value of [parents’] paychecks or, in some cases, prevents parents from reentering the work force at all,” Dodd’s position paper says. “As president, I will significantly increase funding for [Child Care and Development Block Grant] and provide incentives for businesses to provide child care for their employees.”

Dodd has made news calling for quick withdrawal from Iraq and for apologizing for voting to give the president authorization to invade in the first place. Most of it has been a blip on the screen of mass America.

Rep. Ron Paul

Rep. Ron Paul has built grass-roots momentum by dancing around the third rail in his party’s primary. A Texas Republican sounding off against keeping troops in Iraq, which Paul has done, is going to make some noise and attract voters who don’t usually ask for the GOP ballot.

Still, he sits between 1 and 6 percent in most national polls. And the media have often painted him as a libertarian outside the Republican mainstream. But one wonders how attractive his platform about homeschooling would be to faith-based conservatives, if more of them knew about it.

“As president I will advance tax credits through the Family Education Freedom Act,” Paul says on his Web site, “which reduces taxes to make it easier for parents to homeschool.”

Tancredo has been accused of being a single-issue candidate, one who is using the presidential platform to push his message about immigration. He denies the claim and lists a broad range of issues on his Web site, including abortion, a national sales tax, judicial activism and political correctness.

Tancredo also says he will work to repeal the president’s fast track authority in trade negotiations.

“Those who would delegate that authority to the president argue that the complexities of negotiation in a global economy require it,” he writes. “But that argument has lost its force because the presidents have abused the power.”

Kucinich’s office admits he suffers from a perception of being too left-wing to be elected.

“People start saying a line, no matter how inaccurate it is,” Manitta says. “Eventually it becomes the line that everyone buys. But I want to know what’s so liberal about saying that the invasion of Iraq was about oil, or that we’re the only industrialized country without a national health care system, or that our civil liberties are being shredded, or that we should balance the budget -- scandal! Is that left-wing?”

So why keep running? Why not, at least, take a day off?

“To show people that politics doesn’t have to be like this,” she said. “To show people if they really followed what they believe in, this could be different.”

Michael Humphrey is a freelance writer living in Kansas City, Mo.

National Catholic Reporter, December 28, 2007

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