Candidates Fight Hard to Seem 'Average'

If the 2008 presidential election was a reality show called "I'm Running for President," this week's episode would have been called "… and I'm Just Like You."

Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards whistled Dixie in his Seneca, S.C. birthplace, using small town beginnings to establish himself as a Southern Democrat to Southern conservatives.

Outside a nearby family restaurant, Edwards told reporters "I'm different than some Democrats because I grew up in the South," Edwards said.

At a program last week organized by the politically influential Service Employees International Union, Edwards was the first Democratic presidential contender to work the early shift at a suburban nursing home, tending to the residents who live there, complete in jeans and a blue, collared shirt.

Around the same time, a Republican presidential aspirant, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani made headlines of his own, taking heat in the national spotlight for wrongly estimating the cost of a gallon of milk by half.

When Millions Fade to Background

In a field of nearly two dozen, the candidates are fighting to be in touch, to be visible, to be heard, to be electable. Some of them are millionaires hundreds of times over. Others boast political pedigree.

But when they're fighting for the votes of an American public whose median household income, as of the last census, was $46,242, their bank statements and blue blood quickly fade to background.

For those votes, they'll become your neighbors, give you a clean shave at your rest home and even let you quiz them on their last grocery bill.

Making an Impression

"I don't really think voters are looking for a president who knows the price of things in a grocery store," said Michael Hagen of Temple University's Department of Political Science. "In this stage of the campaign, the impressions that the candidates are trying to get across have more to do with connecting with people on some level they understand."

Lynn Vavreck, a political science faculty member at UCLA, agrees. They do it, she says, to "convey an image to voters that they're 'just like you.'"

An image and values that reflect the voting bloc, Vavreck said, signal " to voters that the candidate knows your problems and how to make things better for you."

Channeling 'Every Man' Appeal

Just ask President Bush.

During the 2000 campaign then-Gov. George W. Bush, son of a former president and grandson of a U.S. senator, masked his New England ties and Ivy League pedigree behind a Texas drawl and everyday appeal.

"The way [Bush] did it was to stress the ordinary parts of his background visually," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

An avid golfer, Bush shied away from the sport for the duration of his campaign, particularly when cameras were present, to avoid being photographed playing an elitist sport.

It was a strategy former President Reagan employed as well. As a movie star, his good-guy image lent to his public cache of good will. On the campaign trail, Reagan was all American: chopping wood, riding horses and the like.

Embracing Pedigree and Fortune

Still, Jamieson said, "there have been some candidates that didn't try to rebut privilege."

Those with last names like Kennedy and Rockefeller, Jamieson says, couldn't hide their pedigree and fortune because their surnames were so recognizable.

Although it may be a line of reasoning more likely to win you votes in a Senate race, Jamieson says these one-time presidential candidates used the argument that "wealth was an advantage because it made them [incorruptible]."

It's nothing new. Last week former Republican Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney raised eyebrows when he called himself a lifelong hunter. Historians might have been thinking about William Henry Harrison's stretching the truth of growing up in a log cabin in the 1840s -- he actually was raised on a Berkeley plantation.

"Voters want [candidates] to be able to say their life experience has matched their own," Jamieson said. "If they don't, you may not govern in their self-interest."

Appealing to Voters on a Range of Issues

Still Gary Langer, director of ABC News' Polling Unit, suggests "average guy" appeal is not the whole story. Polling data indicates that candidates try to appeal to voters across a range of fronts: issues, experience, ability, judgement and a personal basis.

For example, Bush was widely thought to exude "guy next door" over Democratic presidential contender John Kerry in 2004. Pre-election polling data from September of that year reveals voters ranked a candidate who understood "the problems of people like you" fifth -- after qualities like strong leadership and trustworthiness.

"Empathy is the cartilage that helps shield the president when times get tough," Langer said.

Substance Over Style

Langer concluded: "At the end of the day, the product and the candidate aren't about their marketing, they're about the substance of what's being offered."

And if fundraising numbers are any indication, the substance of the candidate pool is reaching its intended targets.

"The fundraising figures indicate that most of the candidates are able to raise small amounts of money from many people, which suggests they are connecting," Vavreck said. "Whatever they're doing seems to be paying off in that respect."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.