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Will their writing woo the voters?

Times Staff Writer

Read any good policy-wonk books lately?

In the blinding blitz of presidential campaign rhetoric, it’s easy to miss a retro tool of communication -- a book in the candidate’s own words.

Today, Democratic front-runner Howard Dean is releasing “Winning Back America” (Simon & Schuster), a statesmanlike campaign biography, just as the former Vermont governor is struggling to widen his lead over Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and other rivals before the key Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19.

Last week, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina came out with “Four Trials” (Simon & Schuster), which, according to a blurb by political thriller writer Richard North Patterson, is written “with the crackling drama of a novel.”

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Last month, Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich’s book, “A Prayer for America” (Nation), a collection of his speeches and essays with a foreword by Studs Terkel, hit No. 17 on the New York Times’ extended bestseller list. And books by three other Democratic hopefuls were published earlier this year.

Such books are intended to lend an extra measure of gravitas to campaigns and even, perhaps, touch off the kind of buzz that can boost a candidacy or set the stage for one, as in the case of John F. Kennedy and Al Gore, experts pointed out.

As a freshman U.S. senator, Kennedy wrote “Profiles in Courage,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957 and helped raise his national profile. In 1992, then-Sen. Al Gore released “Earth in the Balance,” a book that helped position him as the environmental candidate in his future presidential bid.

In June, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s memoir, “Living History,” was interpreted widely as an attempt to test the waters for a White House run in 2008.

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These days, serious presidential candidates are expected to write books, said Judith Trent, a University of Cincinnati professor who studies communication in presidential campaigns. “It seems presidential,” she said of the candidates’ books. “It’s heavier [than brochures]. It has more weight than the biographical video. They’re hoping it says, ‘Look, this person is a heavyweight, a real contender.’ ”

Candidate-written books still hold sway, still project authority in an age in which campaigns such as Dean’s have relied heavily on the informality and accessibility of the Internet. (Gen. Wesley K. Clark’s Web site features a video clip of him in action: “You won’t believe what happens behind the scenes ... in Wes Cam Episode 3.”)

Other presidential-candidate-written books released this year were Sen. John F. Kerry’s “A Call to Service” (Viking); Clark’s “Winning Modern Wars” (PublicAffairs); and Sen. Joe Lieberman’s “An Amazing Adventure” (Simon & Schuster) co-written with his wife, Hadassah Lieberman. Last year, the Rev. Al Sharpton came out with “Al on America” (Kensington) and, in 1999, PublicAffairs published Gephardt’s “An Even Better Place.” Former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun has not written a book. Moseley Braun, a latecomer to the crowded Democratic field, didn’t declare her candidacy until Sept. 22. “I think it’s important that candidates have books,” she said. “Had my campaign evolved different than it did, I might have had one. I respect books too much to throw one together.”

Edwards’ “Four Trials” was meant to be a departure from the standard campaign biography, said his press secretary, Jennifer Palmeiri. The book, written with University of Maryland English professor John Auchard, tells the stories of four clients whom Edwards represented as an attorney in negligence cases. (Proceeds from the book, along with Edwards’ $15,000 advance, will go to the Wade Edwards Foundation, a nonprofit named for the senator’s late son, who, as a high school junior, was killed in a car accident.)

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Edwards came up with the idea for the book well before he decided to run for president, Palmeiri said. But the release of “Four Trials” was timed to coincide with the senator’s campaign in the key states in which early voting contests are held. A portrait of the senator is featured on the hardcover book jacket, looking serious, his tie loosely knotted, shirt sleeves rolled up.

By contrast, the paperback cover of “Winning Back America” shows Dean in close-up with a tight smile. The book is a straightforward political biography, covering Dean’s position on major issues, his career as a physician and governor, and life as a family man.

In the 179-page book, Dean elaborates on the death of his younger brother, Charles Dean, who disappeared in Laos in 1974, and his medical deferment during the Vietnam War.

It’s hard to gauge the impact of such books, which tend to preach to the choir rather than sway undecided voters, experts said. Still, for a candidate’s supporters, “you’re trying to give them some material -- ‘Here’s how you can talk about him in everyday conversation without sounding preachy,’ ” said Rita Whillock, a professor and chair of the department of communications at Southern Methodist University.

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“Four Trials” does have the potential to define Edwards as the defender of everyday people, she said. It’s “a little more insight into someone people don’t know that much about. In the age of spin control, everyone is trying to figure out: Who are these people, in essence?”

Edwards’ book might help him, even if he doesn’t sell many copies at $24 each, noted David Redlawsk, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Iowa. “A book like Edwards’ might give him a little bit of an extra push in Iowa, where people are paying extra attention,” Redlawsk said. “Edwards’ book really tells some stories that are quite independent from the campaign, the way things aren’t usually done, so it might have legs of its own.”

But booksellers are not expecting a run on candidates’ titles. At the independent Midnight Special Bookstore in Santa Monica, for instance, no one has asked about the Dean or Edwards book, said owner Margie Ghiz. “The kind of stuff that’s going to sell here is the Al Franken book and Michael Moore book,” she said.

The candidates’ books aren’t selling at Dutton’s Brentwood Bookstore, either, said Mignon McCarthy, a spokeswoman for the independent bookseller. “In terms of political books ... Al Franken, we can’t keep in stock. Paul Krugman. Molly Ivins. Jim Hightower. People are interested in the analysis of what’s going on.”

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