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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Snap, Not Substance, Feeds Campaign Trail Press

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire -- In a 45-minute talk to a civic group, Lamar Alexander spoke of ending federal involvement in welfare and food stamps. He talked about Medicaid, about agricultural subsidies, about eliminating capital gains taxes.


But when the meeting ended and a dozen reporters surrounded the Republican presidential candidate, the tone of the discussion changed.


"Are we now at a critical period where it's a question of contrasting yourself to Bob Dole almost exclusively?'' one reporter asked. "Governor, you're running way behind in the polls here,'' another reporter said. "Realistically, how do you make a showing?''


Alexander served up shorter, snappier attack lines, the kind that he knew might get him on television. Virtually none of the substantive discussion -- except for his refusal to take a stand on reforming Social Security -- made it into news accounts.


As the contenders make their rounds in the early-primary states, there is no shortage of serious debate about government policy and social issues.


But the conventions of daily journalism, which place a high premium on novelty and sharp rhetoric, filter out most of the weightier fare. The candidates' positions on various issues might be described in a long profile or issues piece, but after that they are no longer "new.''


Media-savvy candidates understand these dynamics. Minutes after the Alexander event, the reporters went to a news conference with candidate Pat Buchanan, who delivered a series of one-line zingers about the budget battle.


Buchanan declared that Senator Bob Dole "buckled and broke and raised the white flag.'' He derided the flat tax plan of Steve Forbes Jr. because he would not "let some trust-fund baby down in Florida clip coupons the rest of his life and pay no taxes.''


When Buchanan called for questions, the room fell silent. He had already given the reporters what they wanted -- rhetorical red meat -- so there was little need for further cross-examination.


For the press, the campaign trail can be mind-numbingly repetitive. At a fund-raising dinner here, the candidates recycled their best applause lines: Buchanan ("I will put Bill Clinton in the cross-fire and we will send him and Hillary back to Arkansas''); Alan Keyes ("The issue is the collapse of the marriage-based, two-parent family''); Forbes on the tax system ("Scrap it, kill it, bury it and hope it never rises again'').


Campaign strategists say they have little choice. "We're so far from filling the fame gap that we have to keep saying the same things,'' said Mark Merritt, Alexander's communications director.