Wed, Aug 22, 2007 - Page 9 News List

US candidates learn the costs of video malaprops

Politicians have become painfully aware of video-sharing Web sites that can post their gaffes online almost immediately

By Liz Sidoti  /  AP , WASHINGTON

Say what? Next year's US presidential campaign theme could be "Oops! What I meant was ... "

Just about every Republican and Democrat has flubbed an answer to a question or made a borderline inappropriate comment -- some so uncomfortable they make you cringe -- only to take back the remarks or seek to clarify them later when under fire.

This month alone, former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney backtracked from a comment about his sons' lack of military service. Republican rival Rudy Giuliani and former New York mayor retreated from his suggestion that he spent as much time as Sept. 11, 2001, rescue workers at the ground zero site and was exposed to the same health risks. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a Democratic candidate, stumbled over a question about whether homosexuality was a choice. All sought to skirt controversy by quickly explaining themselves.

It is happening so often, "you'd think it's deliberate!" said Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania.

Joking aside, he said: "I don't think you can go through this grueling ordeal and not find even the most seasoned politician who isn't susceptible to a malaprop here or there. We're seeing some genuinely real moments as these candidates are in the pressure cooker."

Chalk up the glut of apologies and clarifications to changing times.

Candidates of all stripes have become extremely sensitive to the Internet era and painfully aware of video-sharing Web sites such as YouTube that allow images and audio to be posted online immediately.

At the same time, it has become routine for campaigns to send out "trackers" with recorders to capture a rival's every appearance in hopes of catching an election-altering misstep to use in a television ad or Web video.

"In the olden days, this wasn't an issue because if you said something that could be problematic, you just denied that you said it," said Jenny Backus, a Democratic consultant. "These days, it's too easy to have cold, hard proof."

"You've got to have a strategy to combat the YouTube video," she said. "Now, one mistake can be replayed often."

TWO CHOICES

Typically, both Republican and Democratic strategists say, candidates who slip up take one of two damage-control avenues.

Some opt to stand firmly behind their comments and plow forward with their campaigns. They believe that apologizing or clarifying is a sign of weakness and that sticking to their viewpoints shows strength and projects self-awareness. The risk is that they can appear stubborn and unwilling to admit mistakes.

More often, candidates decide to acknowledge their errors or explain their comments quickly. The hope is to take blunders off the table and blunt the impact of any attacks. But they also could appear as though they do not mean what they say and will change positions when they feel the heat.

Regardless of which path they choose, strategists say, each situation must be handled individually and candidates must strike a balance between being authentic and being willing to admit they are wrong.

"I'd rather be who I am and make mistakes than come across as this very carefully scripted, totally handled person. I think people are so sick of that," said former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, a Republican whose words sometimes have gotten him in trouble.

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