Manchester, N.H. - SEN. BOB Kerrey is running a hot television commercial here these days, one that is striking enough to remind everyone that the real campaign for the Feb. 18 New Hampshire primary is just beginning.
The spot uses an ice hockey motif, an obvious attention-getter in New England this time of year, and focuses on the touchy trade issue. The Nebraska Democrat is shown on a rink making the point that the U.S. leaves its net open "while others guard their goals" to deny access to American products. "We're becoming a low-wage nation," says Kerrey, "and all George Bush can do is go to Japan and beg for a few concessions. I'm Bob Kerrey and if I'm president, the time for begging is through."
The spot was prepared by Bob Shrum and David Doak, who have just taken over as media consultants to the Kerrey campaign. It triggers memories of another commercial prepared by the same firm four years ago -- the spot used by candidate Richard Gephardt in Iowa that showed what a Hyundai would cost in the United States if we had the same tariff barriers the Japanese erected against our automobiles. It was credited with lifting Gephardt's campaign out of the doldrums and putting him on the road to winning the Iowa precinct caucuses a few weeks later.
That is worth remembering because there are striking parallels between the situation of Bob Kerrey today and that of Dick Gephardt at the same point in 1988 -- that is, both candidates' campaigns seemed to be stalled. So the obvious question is whether Kerrey can realize a similar lift from the hockey spot.
But the significant thing is the reminder that for all the personal campaigning by the candidates -- the endless round of coffees and small meetings and media events -- no more than one-fourth of the Democratic primary voters, if that many, will ever see one of the candidates in person.
As Bob Shrum puts it, "These things really begin when we go on TV."
Television advertising wasn't always that important here. In fact, candidates never bothered to buy time until 1980 because of their belief that Boston television was too expensive and too wasteful.
That changed after a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, the late Hugh Gallen, scored an upset victory in 1978 on the strength of a late TV ad campaign on those Boston outlets.
The context of the campaign also has changed in ways that make television more important.
The Democratic primary vote has risen from 80,000 in 1976 to 123,000 last time, and most of the growth has come in the communities in the southern part of the state that are essentially Boston suburbs. The result is that the activists have become a much smaller slice of the primary electorate.
It would be a mistake to infer too much from the comparison between Gephardt and Kerrey. Gephardt had been laying a groundwork for his success in Iowa with personal campaigning for almost a year before he began running his commercials. By contrast, Kerrey's campaign wasn't launched here until October and he is far from well established with New Hampshire voters.
But the pattern of late decisions by an electorate of non-activists is clear. In 1984, for example, Gary Hart was faring so poorly here at this point that he considered withdrawing. However, a late surge, fed by intense news media coverage growing out of his second-place finish in Iowa, carried him to a comfortable victory over Walter F. Mondale.
The bottom line is that the game up to now has been one played largely for the benefit of the 3,000 or so Democrats who might be even loosely defined as activists. But the decision will be made by 100,000 or more Democratic primary voters who may have paid little or no attention up to this point.
None of this suggests that TV advertising alone is likely to be decisive. All the Democratic candidates will be on the air enough so none is likely to have a continuing advantage there. A strong campaign organization is worth a few percentage points. And an especially strong or weak debate performance can make or break any candidate.
But Kerrey's performance as a candidate has been both inconsistent and uncertain. The message in the hockey spot is that he still has the opportunity to clean up his act.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover are members of The Evening Sun staff.