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Royals battle for hearts and minds of their subjects


London -- Top brand names often slug it out for marketplac superiority. There's Coke vs. Pepsi. McDonald's vs. Burger King.

And now, without the necessity of paid advertising, there's Charles vs. Diana, pitted against each other in the marketplace of public affection. The battle, unlike the Prince and Princess of Wales themselves, is joined.

Ever since the royal couple announced their separation four months ago, the pair and their camps had been waging a (mostly) subtle public relations war.

But the growing intensity of the campaigns has forced the issue into the open.

What is emerging is an effort by Buckingham Palace -- which is to say Queen Elizabeth and the official machinery of the monarchy -- to fashion a new regal image for Prince Charles while simultaneously edging Princess Diana, still the most popular royal, out of the limelight.

Diana's popularity enables her to maintain her status as a front-line royal figure. And being on the front line enables her to maintain her popularity.

This is seen as troubling for the queen and the other "blood" royals.

For Diana, the goal is to maintain her stature as a separate, but equal, member of the Royal Family. She already has seen the House of Windsor make an outcast of Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York.

While Diana can never be swept aside as easily as Fergie -- after all, the Princess of Wales is the mother of an heir to the throne -- she is in danger of having her position vastly minimized.

Charles, on the other hand, must build an image as a respected solo operator who will carry the monarchy into the 21st century. It won't be easy.

The Prince of Wales has, for years, stood in the shadow of his glamorous wife. But his reputation has slid considerably since the separation. And when reports surfaced of his alleged extramarital affair with aristocrat Camilla Parker-Bowles, whose

husband once held the arcane post of "Silver Stick in Waiting to the Queen," his stock plummeted.

He became a national subject of ridicule when transcripts were published of the infamous "Camillagate" tape, which purportedly captured the prince and Ms. Parker-Bowles in an intimate conversation that ranged from gooey sex patter to toilet humor.

"He took a tremendous jolt from the Camilla tape. A tremendous jolt," says author Brian Hoey, who has written 10 books on the royal family.

Since then, Prince Charles has been on a desperate mission to rehabilitate himself.

To that end, he has eschewed some of his less weighty pursuits, such as polo, and concentrated on establishing himself as a serious international figure.

He flew to Bosnia to shake hands with British troops posted there. He traveled to Warrington, in northwest England, to visit victims of an Irish Republican Army bomb attack. There have been sojourns to Prague, Mexico City and Washington.

"The palace was thrilled to bits at his reception in the United States," says Mr. Hoey, who is in regular contact with royal insiders. "That visit to the United States and meeting President Clinton has been the single most important visit he has made since the separation, and the single most important item for his rehabilitation."

Whether he can duplicate the Washington fanfare in his own country remains to be seen, however.

Some of Charles' recent activities seemed designed to add credibility to more personal aspects of his life. He frequently is photographed shepherding his sons, whom he previously had been accused of ignoring. An exhibition of his paintings just went on display at the Museum of Garden History in London.

Other princely projects, initiated before the separation, have just surfaced, adding to the flurry of activity.

On Easter, Charles appeared on British television narrating a children's story he wrote in 1980 called "The Old Man of Lochnagar." Although it was taped last November, the timing of the broadcast was not bad for someone with a need to project a wise and fatherly image to his country.

And, to top it off, Charles has the best-selling nonfiction book in Britain, "Highgrove: Portrait of an Estate," a lush coffee-table book about organic farming at his country estate. ("Diana: Her True Story" is still the No. 1 paperback in Britain.)

The repackaging of Prince Charles represents the positive face of the Buckingham Palace PR offensive. Its handling of Princess Diana is the seamier side.

The palace denies that Prince Charles' battered public image is being reshaped, let alone that there is an effort to undercut Diana.

There is strong evidence to the contrary, however.

Diana is still free to attend movie premieres, speak at charity luncheons and visit the homeless and diseased. But her attempts to participate in matters of state have met with resistance.

Last month, when Diana traveled to Nepal on her first official overseas trip since the separation, initial press reports proclaimed that the princess was being snubbed by the Nepalese. The British national anthem was not played upon her arrival, she was housed at the British Embassy compound rather than the king of Nepal's guest quarters and she met only briefly with the king.

But it soon emerged that the low-key handling of her visit had come at the request of Buckingham Palace. The British Foreign Office admitted that the trip originally had been planned as a full state visit, but had been downgraded after "consultations" with the palace.

The incident prompted questions over the possible existence of a dirty tricks campaign. Adding to the mystery was the incredibly timed appearance -- just as Diana was embarking on her journey -- of a previously unheard and somewhat damaging extract of the so-called "Squidgy" tape, in which a woman said to be the princess was secretly taped exchanging terms of endearment with a close male friend.

In the new segment of the tape, the woman expresses fears of pregnancy, which some observers took as reinforcing the notion that Diana had been having an extramarital affair.

But it was a bitter fracas over royal family representation at a memorial service for the bombing victims in Warrington that seems to reveal just how deep the chasm is between the royal factions.

An IRA bomb in the city's shopping district killed two children in March on the day before British Mother's Day. The murders provoked national outrage.

It was, by tradition, a prime moment for a visit to the devastated city by Princess Diana, often referred to as "Caring Di" by the tabloid press. She is the royal who comforts AIDS patients and others suffering hardship. And it is that image that has helped her remain the most popular member of the royal family.

But in an uncharacteristic move, it was Prince Charles who was )) whisked up to Warrington, where he visited hospitalized victims. The departure from the standard royal reaction to such circumstances was duly noted in the British press, with some accounts noting the prince's awkwardness in the role.

Said one paper, "Charles smiled throughout the proceedings as if he were opening the Chelsea Flower Show and he made some strangely inappropriate remarks."

ZTC Then, just before a public memorial in Warrington on April 7, Buckingham Palace announced that Prince Philip would represent the royal family at the very high-profile event. This was more than uncharacteristic. It struck many as unbelievable. Queen Elizabeth's husband is not thought to have ever handled similar duties alone. Nor is he known as "Caring Philip." "Where's Di?" people wanted to know.

Buckingham Palace spokesmen insisted Philip was the most appropriate choice and said reports that Diana had made a request to attend were merely speculation. Reporters also were told it would be "unprecedented" to send two royals to a public memorial, so there was no way Diana could accompany her father-in-law.

Diana appeared to have been pushed from the spotlight. Then she struck back.

The night before the memorial service, she phoned the parents of the murdered boys to offer condolences and express regret at not being able to attend. That made front page news. "Snubbed Di Rings Bomb Family," said one tabloid headline. "She wanted to visit Warrington but Palace sends Philip instead."

Meanwhile, unnamed "friends" of the princess were quoted widely as saying she was badly disappointed that the royal family had blocked her from attending the service.

It seemed hideous that a national tragedy was used as a backdrop for a royal power struggle. But the press placed the blame on Buckingham Palace, and Diana emerged triumphant.

For now.

, Los Angeles Times Syndicate.

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