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Candidate Has Learned Fine Art of the Photo Op

Times Staff Writers

November 2003, Burbank. John F. Kerry, mounted on a Harley-Davidson, crashes through a mock-up of a security barrier on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” then awkwardly plays second fiddle to a mocking canine sock puppet.

February 2004, Indianapolis. The same man, doffing his suit coat, tosses a football in smooth spirals to eager young staffers who race out for long passes on an airport tarmac. He looks every inch the other JFK, and a clutch of cameramen snaps away, grateful. It’s the only picture on a long day of campaign travel, and it’s a good one for all involved.

What a difference a few months make in the education of the Democratic presidential candidate. From that moment on NBC -- when Triumph the Insult Comic Dog rued that “John Kerry, a war veteran, has to follow a ... dog puppet?” -- the Massachusetts senator has evolved into a canny practitioner of the photo opportunity.

The shift comes not a moment too soon, as the intimate setting of the primary race gives way to the hurly-burly of the general election campaign; as one-on-one interactions with voters are replaced by 30-second advertisements; as quick, choreographed images grow in significance for voters who will never see the candidates up close.

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In recent weeks, Kerry helped facilitate a steady stream of perfect pictures from the campaign trail: strumming his guitar during a quiet moment on his plane, embracing a toddler at a day-care center, lugging a shopping bag during a day of errands with his daughter in Boston.

The candidate also knows when to pull out of the spotlight. During his recent ski and snowboarding vacation in Ketchum, Idaho, cameras were limited to shooting Kerry, for the most part, when he made his final glide down an easy slope. No presidential candidate, after all, wants to be remembered for a pole-flying pratfall.

“Since so much of the campaign today involves visual imagery, this is a very important step,” said Diana Owen, an associate professor of political science at Georgetown University. Owen has noticed the uptick in quality and quantity of Kerry campaign pictures, particularly Friday’s much-used image of the candidate at a Democratic Party unity dinner.

“In this morning’s paper, it was Bill Clinton and Kerry, and he looked at ease,” Owen said. “He’s made tremendous progress.”

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It’s a good thing for Kerry, because a president seeking reelection has a visual advantage. No jet compares to Air Force One. No rival can perform as commander in chief surrounded by thousands of uniform-clad men and women. Few backdrops are as magisterial as the White House lawn.

Neither Kerry nor President Bush has a natural grace before the cameras. Kerry continues to struggle with a stiff style and is given to windy Senate-speak. And when Kerry and Clinton spoke at Thursday night’s Democratic gala in Washington, the comparisons favored the former president.

That said, Kerry has improved when the cameras are on. At a deli in Delray Beach, Fla., in early March, he was approached by Frank Ashford, a fiftysomething patron who shook Kerry’s hand and said in a quiet but firm voice: “Do the tough things, the tough things, and make the American people proud of you.”

With cameras trained on him, the candidate held onto Ashford’s hand for an unusually long time and, looking straight into his eyes, responded: “I will. We will. We will do the tough things, yes, sir, we will. I promise you.”

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The patrician-looking senator does his best to seem like Everyman, slapping people’s backs and squeezing shoulders as he makes his way down the rope line after campaign events. He enlivens his town meetings by dashing around the room to hand people a microphone.

“I always wanted to play Phil Donahue,” he said at one such forum in Hollywood, Fla., as the audience laughed.

Behind Kerry’s newfound ease with visuals is an acute awareness of the camera’s power. What voters rarely see, however, are the orchestrated efforts to play to those cameras, and the occasionally awkward moments they do not capture.

Before doing outdoor television interviews during a recent swing through West Palm Beach, Fla., Kerry suggested that the setting move to the shade so that he would not be squinting on the air. Backstage before a rally in Tampa later in the day, he carefully applied lip balm from a tin held by an aide, who then handed him a tissue to wipe the excess from his hands.

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Voters might have seen the recent photo of the pensive candidate picking his guitar at the front of the campaign plane. They did not see his staff invite photographers and cameramen to Kerry’s quarters -- two at a time -- to capture the “spontaneous” moment.

Earlier on the campaign trail, he was well-intentioned but not always so deft. During a stop in Chesapeake, Va., Kerry made a spur-of-the-moment detour to visit an aircraft carrier-turned-museum. Great idea, great picture: Decorated Navy veteran strides up the wharf, contemplating the majesty of the warship as the sun sets in the background. Too bad the motorcade arrived just after dark. No sun, no sunset, no picture.

Sometimes, a glimpse of an edgy, impatient man slips past the smooth demeanor that the candidate projects.

On Super Tuesday in early March, when Kerry effectively sealed the Democratic nomination, he appeared on several morning talk shows. Viewers saw a confident candidate sidestepping questions about a possible running mate. They didn’t see Kerry attacking his cuticles, picking at his fingernails below the rolling cameras.

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During a recent stop in Chicago, Kerry shook hands with workers at a sheet metal shop while waiting to deliver a satellite address to a meeting of AFL-CIO brass. After about 15 minutes of clutching the employees’ shoulders and making small talk, Kerry -- who rarely gets to his first event of the day on time -- turned to his staff. “Don’t they know we’re here?” he asked, his joking tone masking impatience that the union leaders had left him cooling his heels.

After his address, the cameras were still rolling as the candidate shook hands with the workers. It’s unclear if he knew that his microphone was on as he referred to his Republican opponents as “crooked” and “lying” -- comments that set off a firestorm of criticism.

During his vacation in Idaho, the candidate and his aides were more careful. Photographers who wanted to document his days on the slopes quarreled with Kerry’s aides about access. More often than not, they were left behind at the lodge.

The images they were able to capture: a lanky sportsman in designer gear and dark glasses getting off a chairlift, leaving the lodge with his wife or racing expertly down the final, safe hunk of hillside.

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However, reporters were nearby on one of Kerry’s first runs, when a Secret Service agent collided with the candidate and knocked him down.

“I don’t fall down,” Kerry snapped when queried about the spill. “That [expletive] knocked me over.”

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Times staff writer Eric Slater contributed to this report.

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