July 20, 2007— -- As more names are added to the ballot and the presidential campaign heats up, candidates are pulling out all the stops. And the latest secret weapon on the campaign trail may have more than two legs, a really hairy back and a tail.
It's the pet factor, and it might be more important than ever.
Will Hillary Clinton's chocolate lab pull her over the finish line? Can John McCain's menagerie turn his fortunes around? Should Rudy Giuliani and Barack Obama simply give up because they are pet-less?
As the voting public becomes more interested in the person behind the politician, a candidate's pet, or lack thereof, could win or lose them the race. But, warns comedian Mo Rocca, author of "All the President's Pets," candidates have to get their pet-igrees right. The wrong choice might be devastating.
"A poodle will never work because they are just seen as too European, the only thing that would be worse is a 'Bichon Frise' -- then you can just forget it," Rocca said.
There's plenty of evidence to support this pet theory.
Whatever the feelings about the elected inhabitant of the Oval Office may be, the public's love affair with other White House creatures, great and small, has always been undisputed.
A new White House Visitor's Center exhibit celebrates their influence.
"I don't know who said this, maybe Napoleon, 'Behind every great man is a great dog,'" said William Bushong of the White House Historical Association.
Some presidents go overboard -- Calvin Coolidge had 33 pets, including a raccoon and a wallaby.
A fan of marsupials, Rocca said, "I love any pet with a pouch. I think that's really daring of a president."
Pets do offer support in what can be a lonely town. And no one understands that more than Republican candidate John McCain.
McCain has a pretty large pet contingent, including, "Kookie, Cocoa the Mutt. He's got two turtles named Cuff and Link. He's got a ferret. He's got Oreo, the black-and-white cat. This is obviously very real," Rocca said.
But most important, pets have long been critical image-boosters.
"When Hoover ran for the presidency in 1928, the press began attacking him saying, 'Is he human?' They bought a German shepherd dog, and that became a very influential piece of PR," Bushong said.
As far as presidential pets go, cats are decidedly less popular, and according to Rocca, that may be a good thing.
"Cats are go it alone. They're really unilateralist, and right now a lot of people are looking for a president who's going to build coalitions," he said.
Rocca is also urging Obama, whose daughters are clamoring for a dog, to think bigger.
"He needs to do something bold, since he's come to the party, or coming to the kennel, late, if you will. I say pony. It's all about pony right now -- pony's out of the box."
But politicians should be aware that worse than not having a pet is mistreating a pet. When then President Lyndon Johnson lifted his beagles by the ears, activists and citizens alike were aghast with disgust. It was an incident from which Mitt Romney clearly didn't learn.
In June, it came out that Romney used to load the family Irish setter in a pet carrier on the top of the car -- and set off on a 12-hour drive for Canada.
"Mistreating an Irish dog in Massachusetts -- that warrants the death penalty," Rocca quipped.