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Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on CNN, one of the media outlets framing him as a legitimate challenger to President Donald Trump in the Republican primaries for 2020.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on CNN, one of the media outlets framing him as a legitimate challenger to President Donald Trump in the Republican primaries for 2020. (Screengrab courtesy of CNN and Erin Burnett "OutFront")

Amid growing calls for him to run for president in 2020, Gov. Larry Hogan is saying that his focus is running Maryland for the next four years rather than running against Donald Trump.

But he’s appearing on major media outlets like CNN in prime time to say it.

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Actions speak louder, no? If you’re wearing the TV makeup, you’re in the game.

That’s what I was thinking as I watched Hogan Monday night on Erin Burnett’s “OutFront” on CNN. There was a lot of Hogan on CNN this week beyond the Burnett interview: a CNN.com editorial Monday that he wrote calling out Trump and Democrats on the government shutdown, and a strong TV piece reported by Jessica Dean framing him as a legitimate challenger that appeared on multiple shows, including Jake Tapper’s “The Lead.” That’s a lot of screen time and web presence for somebody who says that while he won’t close the door on it, he isn’t thinking much about running.

Maybe it says less about him and more about how superficial I’ve become after four decades of writing about television, but the overwhelming thought I had as I watched his interview with Burnett was how TV-polished, buffed-out and glossy-good he looked by the aesthetics of political television.

My mental image of him during the 2018 gubernatorial campaign was that of burly guy in a bent-brim baseball hat and baggy polo shirt — Saturday morning at Home Depot picking up a couple of bags of mulch. Amiable, neighborly and unpretentious. But now, he definitely had the TV look and maybe even the presidential bug.

For the first time, I started thinking seriously about all the media talk of Hogan as a challenger to Trump in 2020, rather than writing it off as wishful thinking from some members of the mainstream media and what used to be known as the conservative movement yearning for someone — anyone — to take on Trump. And that led me to wonder whether Hogan has the kind of media skills and moves it will take to run against someone as TV tough and Twitter nasty as the transgressive and tailor-made tabloid character in the White House.

While The Baltimore Sun, Washington Post and others have been writing a lot in the past few weeks about Hogan as a potential GOP hopeful, the one aspect that has not been explored much is his media toolkit. And if there is one thing presidential politics has been trying to teach us since at least 1960, it’s that you can have piles of money and a huge team totally backed by your party, but you still cannot get elected president without strong media skills. Ask Hillary Clinton.

I wrote a lot about Hogan’s media image during his run for re-election in an almost flawless campaign last year. But that was an image largely crafted for him by others. And he was running against Democrat Ben Jealous, one of the most disengaged candidates with the worst media campaign I have ever seen at the gubernatorial level anywhere. There were times where I wondered if his campaign was a political version of “The Producers.”

But there were elements of that campaign for better and possibly worse that have not been much discussed that shed light on what kind of media candidate Hogan might be in a 2020 presidential campaign.

On the plus side, and this is a huge plus, Hogan had one of the best political strategists and image makers in the business crafting his TV ads, Russ Schriefer, a partner in the Annapolis firm of Strategic Partners & Media.

Schriefer, who has worked on six presidential campaigns, including those of both George W. and George H.W. Bush, created one of the most visually compelling political ads I have ever seen in “Maryland Strong” for Hogan in 2018.

If you compare the ad with reporting on Hogan like that done on CNN this week, you can see how the ad established certain narratives that have now come to define Hogan favorably throughout most media. The most powerful and compelling is that of Hogan battling through a cancer diagnosis and chemotherapy. It has become a defining element of his character in media reports.

As I wrote when it appeared, including the cancer narrative in a TV ad was a risky choice that could have gone sideways in less accomplished hands. But it was a total winner in “Maryland Strong,” and it grows exponentially by its inclusion in subsequent reporting on Hogan. Millions of viewers saw all or part of Dean’s report on CNN this week.

Schriefer did the same with the story line of Hogan reaching across the aisle to work with Democrats to get things done. If he has Schriefer on board, Hogan could go toe-to-toe on campaign ads with any candidate in 2020.

A caveat, though: While TV ad spending remains huge, Trump did not do much of it.

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Social media is changing the game. But an aggressive Team Hogan showed in 2018 that it can use platforms like Facebook to successfully pump Schriefer’s imagery into and through the digital ecosystem.

On the downside, as smooth and media-friendly as Hogan looks today chatting with a host like Burnett, he has shown a different side in less widely publicized encounters with the press.

During the 2018 campaign, Jaisal Noor of The Real News Network questioned Hogan on the campaign trail about his history with the Maryland Public Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, which Noor attempted to link to the Koch Brothers.

In a video clip of the encounter, Hogan denies any current connection to the institute and dismissively says, “The Real News is pretty fake news.”

That’s Hogan as Trump, not the friendly guy of campaign ads.

Nor is it a one-off.

In 2016, an editorial from The Baltimore Sun was posted on Hogan’s Facebook page with a big red “X” over it followed by the words: “It's amazing that this fake news, newsletter is still in business. They are no longer an actual news organization. This once proud media outlet is now simply a joke with absolutely no credibility.”

How’s that for channeling Trump’s anti-media message? And how does that square with the “angry rhetoric” he denounced in his interview with Burnett Monday?

Hogan has mainly kept his temper under wraps, and more credit to him. But how’s he going to react when a horde of reporters presses him much more aggressively than Noor did?

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Or, better yet, how’s he going to react if Trump comes at him with the kinds of ugly tactics the president is quick to employ, as he did with the wife and father of Ted Cruz?

Trump proved he’s willing to dive headfirst into the garbage when he tried to diminish the valor of John McCain’s record as a prisoner during the Vietnam War by saying, “He’s not a war hero. He’s a hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”

Will Trump try to diminish Hogan’s inspiring story of battling cancer by saying, “I’m not impressed. I like people who didn’t get cancer — people like me. I have great genes, the best ever, according to my great doctor. That’s why I don’t have cancer.”

Right now, Hogan is the candidate darling of some very prestigious news organizations and thoughtful conservative pundits in large part because his media image positions him as the anti-Trump. To paraphrase Simon and Garfunkel, folks like Bill Kristol and Jennifer Rubin turn their “lonely eyes” to him.

Unlike Trump’s, Hogan’s GOP politics are moderate and historically rock-solid, reaching back to his father, the late Rep. Lawrence Hogan. You can hear him emphasizing his GOP bona fides in the Burnett interview — one of several good rhetorical moves he made.

Every aspect of his performance in the Burnett interview screamed anti-Trump. He was calm, reasonable, soft-spoken and tightly focused with no long answers, let alone stream-of-consciousness rambles or verbal attacks on anyone. He felt solid and grounded as opposed to mercurial and untethered.

And while he had a definite TV polish to him, not one bit of his look suggested the desperation, vanity and downright phoniness of Trump trying to look Hollywood handsome with lacquered hair and a fake tan at 72. Even buffed and makeup-chair polished, Hogan still looks like a real person on TV.

Hogan has a good, solid media game, thanks in large part to the strategists around him.

But taking on Trump, who did nothing less than redefine media campaigning in 2016 with his hybrid use of cable TV and Twitter, is another thing altogether.

Talking about reaching across the aisle and getting things done in a bipartisan way are good talking points, especially right now after the shutdown and all the chaos Trump is creating.

But does Hogan have a higher media gear? Good talking points hit solidly and hard on cable TV will only get you so far. Again, ask Hillary Clinton.

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