Defining battle critical in politics

For political hopefuls, how they are defined - whether by themselves or their opponents - is critical, as Stephen Mills observes during the American presidential contest.

Defining your opponent before they have a chance to define themself has always been a brutal part of politics.

In New Zealand it has to be done largely through the news media. A classic example was Bill Rowling - from a farming family, an accomplished sportsman, the most capable minister in Norman Kirk's Labour cabinet after the 1972 election. When he led Labour after Kirk's death, he was defined by National's Robert Muldoon as weak; as a mouse; famously derided as "a shiver looking for a spine to run up".

In the United States there is the added fuel of tens of millions of advertising dollars to drive this "defining".

In the 2004 presidential election, John Kerry - a genuine Vietnam war hero - was seriously damaged by advertisements in which fellow Swift boat naval veterans questioned his patriotism.

In 2012, the Republican challenger to President Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, has been the one under the defining gun.

Frank Luntz, a celebrated Republican and international pollster, argues Romney failed to define himself in the Republican primaries, and that he won the party's nomination by bringing down his opponents rather than telling his own story.

That has left him wide open to the Obama campaign which has taken dead aim at his business career. This is a critical battleground. Romney's case for the presidency pretty much begins and ends with the argument that he has been a highly successful and capable business man who is better placed than Obama to restore the US's sagging economic fortunes.

The Obama campaign has tried instead to turn him into what has been widely shorthanded as a "corporate vulture".

The Obama advertising attack has mainly involved Romney's career at the restructuring company Bain Capital, but he is also vulnerable on his tax record and overseas bank accounts.

One official Obama advertisement has Romney singing America the Beautiful (not very well ) while the text overlay accuses him of outsourcing American jobs to Mexico, China and India; and of having overseas accounts in Switzerland and the tax havens of Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.

Another from an Obama- supporting political action committee (PAC) is called "Stage", and has had over 2 million YouTube hits. It features a personable worker at an Indiana paper plant describing how he and others unknowingly built the stage for Bain Capital executives to stand on to announce the plant workers were all fired.

He accuses Romney of making US$100 million "shutting down our plant and devastat[ing] our lives". He concludes: "turns out that stage . . . was like building my own coffin and it makes me sick".

Frank Luntz describes the reaction he saw to the ad from a focus group as "the loudest sound of all - total silence'.

"They were so stunned and so upset they couldn't speak . It turned people against [Romney]."

Luntz says that the Romney team wanted to make the election a referendum on Obama; the Obama team wanted to make it a choice; but Romney's failure to define himself has instead made it a referendum on Romney.

The 2008 New Zealand election was all about John Key. It is an interesting hypothesis whether Key could have taken this type of Kerry/ Romney punishment.

Richard Prebble once described Key as the "candidate from central casting". But arguably that wasn't so in 2008, as the world economy collapsed and publicity about the greed and excesses of the financial world Key came from poured out.

Labour failed completely to make anything of this in the free media. But with millions of dollars of advertising it would have been another story. There was plenty of "Stage"-like material for advertising creatives to work with.

Merrill Lynch, where John Key made his mark, was centrestage in a lot of financial scandals - Enron, the dotcom bubble, the subprime loans. Tasty details emerged of Merrill Lynch chief executive John Thain earning US$83 million the year before the business imploded and had to be rescued by the Bank of America.

Thain was also outed for a million dollar redecoration of his office just before the collapse which included a $1400 wastebasket, an $87,000 rug and a $35,000 "commode on legs".

My guess is John Key would have come through such scrutiny. The "time for a change" mood in 2008 was red hot. His easy manner then with journalists and voters, and his skilful marketing of reasonably humble beginnings put him in very different territory to Romney.

Romney is an awkward candidate who often clumsily plays into the negative stereotype of being super wealthy and out of touch. But who knows? At the very least it might have forced the then Opposition leader on to the wrong side of his "explaining is losing" dictum.

In 2014 David Shearer will be the relatively unknown quality. His impressive humanitarian career gives Labour a lot to work with. Mount Albert voters in the 2009 by-election from where he entered Parliament lapped up his life story. National will almost certainly have to go down a route of something like "nice guy but not the right man to be in charge of the economy in tough and volatile times".

In 2011, New Zealand saw a razor-thin win for the centre Right over the centre Left. All indications, whether polls or the iPredict market, point to another very close contest in 2014.

The battle to define David Shearer will almost certainly decide the next election.

The Press