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Originally published Friday, June 15, 2012 at 5:30 AM

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Book review

Political adviser/historian tells why campaigns, voters matter

In "The Candidate: What It Takes to Win — and Hold — the White House," Samuel L. Popkin uses his background as a Democratic adviser and as a professor and historian of politics to explain the rules and reasons for American presidential campaigns.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Samuel L. Popkin

The author of "The Candidate: What It Takes to Win — and Hold — the White House" will read at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle; $5 (206-652-4255 or
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This book's subtitle invites the reader to look for rules of how to win the White House, and in Samuel Popkin's mind, there aren't many rules.

"Don't fall for a guru," is one. Listen to more than one consultant. But also be ready to ignore them all, as Al Gore did when he took his family's advice and did not renounce President Clinton.

Another rule: Make the right enemies, thereby defining yourself. Clinton did that with his attack on Sister Souljah. But how to pick the right enemy?

It takes judgment, as does this: "Know when to sound strong while being vague and when to sound vague while being strong."

The reader may conclude that this book's real intended audience is President Obama, and Popkin's real message is, "Hire me."

Popkin is a longtime adviser to Democrats. He is also a professor at the University of California at San Diego, and a historian of politics. Especially pertinent to the campaign of 2012 is his story of how President Truman beat his challenger, Thomas Dewey, in 1948. It was not because Dewey was a bad candidate or that because Truman "gave him hell," Popkin writes, but because Truman skillfully divided Republicans by running against their leaders in Congress.

"The Candidate: What It Takes to Win — and Hold — the White House" (Oxford University Press, 304 pp., $27.95) is about campaigns. It is full of knowledge and political lore, especially about the failed ventures of George H.W. Bush in 1992, Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008. Political devotees will find it fascinating. It does, however, raise the obvious question: Is the American way a good way to pick a president?

Popkin thinks it is. Then again, he makes a living from it.

A modern presidential campaign, he says, "is the toughest, fastest political competition there is." It is long enough and tough enough to weed out candidates who don't cut it: Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Jon Huntsman, this year; Howard Dean, Rudy Giuliani, Bill Bradley and Gary Hart in earlier years.

"There is no way to shorten the process without removing some of its screening value," he writes.

Some of Popkin's stories might call into question the screening value. In 2000, George W. Bush had to establish that he was a man of good judgment. What of his alcohol and drug use? Popkin recalls Bush's campaign line: "When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible." The line worked; people bought it. In 2008, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton had voted for the Iraq war and was running in an anti-war party. She dodged the question, and her dodge worked.

It is easy to say democracy is a sham and voters don't matter. They do matter, and this book shows they do. Voters sink at least one major-party presidential candidate every four years, and in the past 12 months they have sunk a barge load of them. But the voter implied by "The Candidate" is not entirely rational. The voter operates partly on bias and gut feel, and pays attention only some of the time.

The voter also worries that people with money and brains are attempting to manipulate him. Which, of course, they are.

Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times editorial writer.

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