Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) returned from her 11-day campaign trip this month with more than a bruised arm.
Her newfound confidence and improved communication skills were probably even more satisfying than what has been described as unprecedented support for a DPP presidential candidate during a single campaign event.
“I always like to say two things. First, people are the best stimulus for politicians. Second, confidence can do wonders for a candidate,” Tsai’s chief campaign manager, Wu Nai-ren (吳乃仁), said on the sidelines of an Oct. 16 rally held in Taipei to mark the end of Tsai’s 500km trip along the nation’s west coast.
Tsai was so popular during the trip, which started in southern Taiwan, that people trying to shake her hand or to grab, touch and talk to her left her right arm covered with bruises during the second half of the trip.
Wu said supporters had shown even more passion than during former president Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) re-election campaign in 2003, and that the number of people who had showed up at various stops had been “surprising” and exceeded the party’s expectations.
With that kind of unprecedented support, “you see why Chairperson Tsai is a different candidate than before,” Wu said.
Despite various polls showing Tsai and President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who is seeking re-election, in a tight race, Tsai has been criticized as running a campaign with a “cool” atmosphere, which is a lot different from previous DPP elections, and delivering her speeches in the manner of professors delivering lectures.
“The fact is that Tsai had never run in an election before she entered the New Taipei City (新北市) mayoral race last year and she had to learn how to communicate with voters from square one,” a campaign staff member said on condition of anonymity.
Before that, Tsai did not have to engage in direct communication with people on a daily basis as a government official or as a professor.
The massive support Tsai received during the trip has changed her, the staff said, as now she tries to shake as many hands as possible because “she has come to enjoy interacting with people.”
“I saw a ‘Little Ing’ [小英, Tsai’s nickname] with growing confidence and the kind of fever that I have never seen since 2000,” said DPP Legislator Pan Men-an (潘孟安), who hails from Checheng (車城), Pingtung County, which Tsai visited two days into the trip, adding that supporters in his hometown were “crazy” about Tsai.
The DPP chairperson is getting comfortable with chatting with people, making a joke or two and getting rid of her “academic” image, Pan said.
Tsai even asked her security to “relax a little bit” over people seeking handshakes because she does not want to “miss any outreaching hand,” he said.
More importantly, Tsai has worked hard on her Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese), which she could not speak as fluently as Mandarin and English before, to be able to better communicate with voters. She has also started Hakka lessons.
Tsai might still not be able to excite the crowd like other party heavyweights and seasoned politicians, such as former premiers Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) and Frank Hsieh (謝長廷), with her speeches, but “it’s not her style anyway,” Pan said.
“She’s getting better and better,” Pan said.
In addition to language, even more important than what Tsai says in her speeches is “how she says it,” said Chen Chun-lin (陳俊麟), the director of the DPP’s poll center, who has participated in the DPP’s presidential elections for more than a decade.
Tsai’s speech is special in the way that “it makes you think afterward, rather than feeling excited when you first listen to it, but forgetting about it by the time you get home,” Chen Chun-lin said.
People can feel the difference as well.
Hsu Chang-ting (徐暢廷), a tennis coach at Linluo Junior High School in Pingtung County, said after meeting Tsai that “the way she speaks is different from other politicians.”
Campaign staff encouraged Tsai to let her instincts take over when she speaks and “never mind which language she speaks with.”
“Because Tsai is at her best when she is relaxed,” said Yao Jen-to (姚人多), one of Tsai’s speechwriters.
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