December 29, 2003

Bush's Campaign Finds Platform on Local Radio

By JIM RUTENBERG

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — President Bush's campaign officials mostly avoid television programs like "Hardball With Chris Matthews," "Inside Politics" or "Face the Nation."

There will be a time for politics, they say.

But on one recent Thursday, Terry Holt, Mr. Bush's campaign press secretary, called in to "The Marc Bernier Show," at 1150 and 1490 on the AM dial here, to talk extensively about how the president wanted to help orange growers and would not be satisfied until "every American who wants a job can have a job."

It was one of several telephone visits Mr. Holt made to radio stations in the past few weeks, though he has not appeared on a national television program since he started his job in early November.

While the Bush campaign maintains a low profile on the national campaign stage — content for now to watch the Democrats beat on one another — it is aggressively working the expansive hustings of Republican-friendly talk radio, priming the grass roots faithful for battle next year.

Mr. Bernier's program is part of a network of conservative-minded local radio shows in politically important states on which campaign officials are heard daily, programs like "Mid-Day With Charlie Sykes" in Milwaukee, "The Martha Zoller Show" in Atlanta and "The Jerry Bowyer Program" in Pittsburgh.

It is a network that the Democrats do not have — though they are trying to cultivate one — and one that Mr. Bush's campaign strategists believe will give him an edge in an election that could go to whichever side best mobilizes its core voters.

Presidents have used radio to reach voters virtually since its invention. But strategists and radio experts say the Bush campaign has taken it to a new level of sophistication, using it far earlier in the campaign cycle and appearing regularly on shows with even the tiniest of audiences.

Mr. Bernier's show, for instance, has an audience of about 50,000 people, compared with more than 14.5 million for Rush Limbaugh every week. The program is so down-home that on one recent night, John Tamburino, owner of Stevens Tire and Auto, walked in off the street to hand Mr. Bernier a Christmas card during a commercial break. Mr. Bernier's political panel that night included Paul Politis, owner of the nearby Gator Beach and Sport, and Virginia Brown, a recently retired hotelier.

But his audience is a politically active bunch in a county, Volusia, that was hotly contested during the 2000 presidential race. As site of the Daytona 500 stock car race, it is chock-full of the so-called Nascar dads, a group that strategists have identified as independent enough to vote for either party.

That is no small thing in a state that Mr. Bush won by 537 votes. Moreover, a survey by Talkers magazine, a trade publication, found that nationwide, 73 percent of talk radio listeners registered to vote did so in 2000.

With the nation mostly evenly divided between Republican and Democrat, "you can win a national election 50,000 listeners at a time," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, who has studied radio and politics.

Still, Ms. Jamieson added: "This is a change in tactics. Radio's been traditionally used later in a campaign, and it's been traditionally larger-audience talk radio."

Mr. Holt said he called in to radio shows like Mr. Bernier's nearly every day.

If he and other campaign officials were to appear on national television programs, he said, the hosts would try to draw them into a dogfight with the Democratic candidates, something they are not interested in doing.

Hosts like Mr. Bernier, on the other hand, let the campaign address the topics it wants to highlight now, what officials call the president's positive agenda on national security, Medicare and the economy.

"We've had discussions with all of the networks and TV shows about doing their shows, and they know there will be a time for politics, and that will signal a change," Mr. Holt said. "At the radio stations that happen to want us on, and that we seek to get on regularly, we are talking to a group of people that follows our issues."

The gentler treatment that he and his colleagues tend to receive is also a consideration. Mr. Bernier began the interview last week by asking Mr. Holt about the president's recent bout with runner's knee ("he's just anxious to go out and get running," Mr. Holt answered) and whether the campaign could schedule a book signing by the former first lady Barbara Bush to offset the attention Hillary Rodham Clinton was getting for one in Miami.

Saying afterward that he did not want his audience to consider him to be a "lay-down Sally," Mr. Bernier did ask some uncomfortable questions, like whether American forces would find Osama bin Laden and whether jobs would come back. But the interview's friendly tone gave Mr. Holt an opportunity to repeat campaign talking points without facing intensive journalistic follow-up questions.

Mr. Holt's call to Mr. Bernier's show was not based on a specific event but campaign officials will often book themselves onto talk shows in a more tactical fashion, to shore up support against bad news, to rally support around good news or to answer Democratic barbs unfettered.

The campaign's Southeast regional chairman, Ralph Reed, was a guest on Mr. Bernier's show this month when Democrats gathered near Orlando for the party's state convention. "Reed was ripping the Democrats left and right," said Mr. Bernier's executive producer, Greg Blosé, an aspiring Republican radio host himself.

And before the president lifted steel tariffs earlier this month, a potentially unpopular move in industrial areas, Mr. Holt appeared on "The Jerry Bowyer Program" on WPTT-AM in Pittsburgh. Mr. Bowyer said he appreciated the gesture.

The Republican courtship of talk radio began in earnest in 1994, when Newt Gingrich used the medium to push the "Contract With America" and, ultimately, bring about a Republican majority in the House of Representatives.

Mr. Bush's political staff further perfected the strategy in the 2002 midterm election, when they invited radio hosts to the White House to interview top officials less than a week before the vote.

Administration officials said they invited hosts of all political stripes. But the Democratic National Committee, noting a national dearth of liberal hosts, said the guest list was overwhelmingly conservative.

The move certainly helped the White House to make friends in important places.

"They wanted to get their voice out, and I got to interview Karl Rove and Andy Card," said Phil Valentine, a conservative radio host in Nashville. "It shows people like me that we're on the radar screen and they care about us. That makes a big difference."


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