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It’s hip to skip the formalities

Times Staff Writer

Sen. John F. Kerry -- in his post-Iowa pumped mode -- owes a nod to World Wrestling Entertainment stars and others who popularized the three words that the Democratic presidential candidate has co-opted as his money line: “Bring. It. On.”

And the crowd goes wild!

By borrowing catchphrases from popular culture, by echoing everyday speech, Kerry -- who, unlike Bill Clinton, has a vibe that is more Abe Lincoln than Linkin Park -- has found his footing on the campaign trail.

In the past month or so, the Massachusetts senator has hit on a vox populi rhetoric that has helped transform his image and fire up crowds. Kerry will try to cement his front-runner status in the Michigan and Washington state caucuses today, and the Maine caucus on Sunday.

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His rivals have snappy lines and clever rhetoric of their own, but Kerry shines in the way he uses language to spin himself as just John. “He’s aristocratic. He went to Harvard. His wife has a zillion dollars. By using colloquialisms, he’s really saying, ‘I’m one of you,’ ” said Robin Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley who studies the language of politics. “That’s the way you establish your bona fides -- you’re in on popular culture, you see the movies, you know the phrases we know.”

In the past two decades, the tenor of the presidency has changed, Lakoff added. Think Bill Clinton on the saxophone; Ronald Reagan’s taunt to Congress in the words of Dirty Harry: “Make my day.”

“From Reagan to Clinton to now, we’ve become more and more an informal society,” she said. “If you went back 40 years to Kennedy, even though Kennedy had his informal moments, his speeches were in formal style. There was a rhetorical tradition ... where you spoke in a public way and didn’t sound colloquial. Now, to be presidential for lots of people is to be a good guy, a nice guy.”

Even the most informal communiques are crafted with an underlying message. On retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark’s website, for instance, parts of his biography refer to him chummily as “Wes.” (By contrast, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s online biography intones, “About Gov. Howard Dean, M.D.”) Kerry also gets off a few clunkers, droning on about energy use, from wood to whale oil, before wrapping up with: “The new mission to the moon is right here on Earth.”

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Candidates who work in self-deprecating humor, a tried-and-true device of modern rhetoric, tend to score points, engaging crowds with a detour from policy talk. Consider:

* Clark implies that he has hip-hop cred in a 30-second video for Rock the Vote, the nonpartisan group that targets MTV-age voters: “I don’t care what the other candidates say,” he says with straight-arrow solemnity. “I don’t think OutKast is really breaking up. Andre 3000 and Big Boi just cut solo records, that’s all.”

* In late January, Dean came up with a one-liner to diffuse the fallout from his “I Have a Scream” speech in Iowa: “I am so excited to be here,” he told audiences in New Hampshire. “I could just scream.” (At a recent stop, a supporter held up a sign embracing Dean’s rant: “I scream, you scream, we all scream for Howard Dean.”)

* Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio jokes about his name (pronounced Koo-SIN-itch): “It wasn’t always Kucinich. It used to be Smith. I changed it to [court the] ethnic vote and bring back the Reagan Democrats.”

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After the New Hampshire primary Jan. 27, Clark also tried to sound like a regular guy in a speech to supporters. “We’re heading south

Kucinich, who has an intellectual persona, also uses “ain’t” but only in quoting poetry by Langston Hughes: " ... Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair....” And the brash Rev. Al Sharpton of New York, who emphasizes his humble roots, manages to use the word without sounding forced. Last week, in Columbia, S.C., he urged young people to work hard. “Ain’t nothing wrong with bling-bling, if you’re bling-blinging your way to some power,” he said.

“Rhetorically, everything has to be consistent with the persona of the candidate,” said English professor Wayne Fields, who studies rhetoric at Washington University in St. Louis. Clark should stick to his clipped, military-style speech, he added: “Don’t try to pretend that he’s some guy on his way to a NASCAR meet or something.”

Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina gets high marks for his theme of “two Americas” -- one for the privileged, and one for everyone else, said Daniel McGroarty, a former White House speechwriter for the first President Bush. The phrase evokes “A Tale of Two Cities,” the familiar theme of “have and have-nots” and the rousing speech given by then-New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo at the Democratic National Convention in 1984. Cuomo said Reaganomics had divided the country into a “tale of two cities,” rich and poor.

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“As a spectator now,” said McGroarty, senior director of a Washington, D.C.-based group of communications consultants, “and someone who’s been on the other side of the partisan divide, I’d give Edwards an A ... for having a compact phrase that signals where he wants to take the debate. Edwards is very conversational. The electorate has sent a message to Dean: ‘You’re too hot, you’re too angry.’ ”

In the white noise of a presidential primary, the quick hits -- slogans and catchphrases -- tend to jump out at voters, with the choicest nuggets sticking in the lexicon. Remember Democrat Walter F. Mondale’s retort to Gary Hart in the 1984 presidential primary, taking ownership of a line from a Wendy’s commercial: “Where’s the beef?”

In this year’s race, fans of “The West Wing” might chuckle at the slogan, “Dean for America.” Martin Sheen’s character on the NBC show, Jeb Bartlet, a former governor and flinty outsider like Dean, ran for president on the slogan, “Bartlet for America.” (The parallels clicked even more when Sheen began campaigning for Dean.)

Slogans, said the University of Maryland’s Shawn J. Parry-Giles, sometimes stamp the candidates for good. “It’s oftentimes how we remember the campaign, the collective understanding of it as time passes,” said Parry-Giles, an associate professor of communication. “It shows how they want us to understand them. It’s what they think the voters are looking for. Kerry’s whole thing is, ‘I’m fighting for you.’ ”

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In a popular riff, Kerry targets the way Bush handled the invasion of Iraq and suggests that the race now is between him and the president. He points to Bush’s premature gloating in May, when the president was flown to the deck of an aircraft carrier. Bush wore a flight suit and posed in front of a banner that read, “Mission accomplished.”

Kerry throws the president’s own words back at him. “Is your mission accomplished in America?” he asks crowds. No! they chant. “Was the mission in Iraq accomplished when he put that sign up?” No! the audience yells.

Both Kerry and Clark mention Bush’s flight deck appearance as a way to underscore their own military service, noted Parry-Giles. “It’s creating this kind of hypermasculine kind of discourse,” she said. “Clark talks about Bush’s ‘prancing’ on the deck of the aircraft carrier, and Kerry talks about Bush playing dress up,” she said. “Clark and Kerry are trying to de-masculinize Bush and his war preparedness.”

In July, Bush also faced a storm of criticism for his bravado after he jeered at insurgents who had been attacking U.S. soldiers in Iraq: “Bring ‘em on.”

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Bush retooled the phrase from popular culture -- pro wrestling fans have chanted “Bring it on” for years. In 1999, a Super Bowl commercial promoted the Hartford Financial Services Group’s new ad campaign: “Bring It On.”

In stump speeches, Kerry works the line: “And if they want national security to be the key issue of this campaign,” he will say, as his supporters prepare to chant the war whoop with him, “I’ve got three words that I know this president understands: Bring. It. On!”

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Times staff writers Maria La Ganga, Scott Martelle, John M. Glionna and Matea Gold contributed to this story.

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