WASHINGTON – Some Democratic presidential hopefuls who need to penetrate the American psyche before next year's primaries are creatively trying to become household names.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts rides a Harley-Davidson around Wisconsin. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean hands out tongue depressors at campaign events. Sen. Bob Graham of Florida has his presidential campaign logo on the hood and quarter panels of a NASCAR (search) Ford Craftsman Truck.
"There's no doubt ... I don't think people are saying they're going to vote for Joe Lieberman because they've heard of him but if they've heard of him, then he's favorable — they know a little bit about him," said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
"The national awareness that you're around has to help."
Based on recent polls, the Democrats need all the help they can get.
A Fox News-Opinion Dynamics poll released last week showed that if the 2004 presidential election were held today, 42 percent of the electorate would re-elect Bush, 31 percent would vote for the Democratic candidate and 19 percent say it depends on the Democrat or it's too soon to say.
But few of the people who said a Democrat could do a better job than Bush could actually name a candidate of that party.
"The Democratic candidates are all still pretty much unknown to the voters," said Opinion Dynamics President John Gorman.
Another Fox News poll released in June shows that most candidates are mostly unknown. Al Gore’s vice presidential running mate in the 2000 election helped Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (search) achieve the highest name recognition of the nine candidates. Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt (search) and New York Rev. Al Sharpton (search) were the only other candidates who had better than 50 percent name recognition.
The least well-known include former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (search), Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich (search), North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (search) and Dean. The four are not identifiable by at least 70 percent of those surveyed. Florida Sen. Bob Graham (search) was not identifiable by 61 percent of those polled.
While voters may not be paying attention yet, they will eventually, say poll takers.
"By and large, the public at large isn't that focused on the campaign yet — that's just the reality of the situation," said Carroll Doherty, editor at the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "Eventually, the field's going to shake out a little bit and whoever's been in the top tier is going to get more attention, and that shake out is going on now."
Candidates confronted with the challenge are trying to be inventive in gaining recognition.
Graham's presidential campaign logo on Jon Wood's No. 50 Ford may be catching some eyes, since the driver recently set a track record at the Kentucky Speedway (search) during qualifying to win the pole. He finished fourth in the race. The season ends in November at Homestead-Miami Speedway, giving Graham plenty more opportunities to get his name out.
Dean, a doctor, surrounded by supporters in lab coats at a Fourth of July parade in New Hampshire, handed out tongue depressors stamped with his Web site address. Dean has also made a name for himself using Web forums like Meetup.com and MoveOn.org to rally supporters. Lieberman has a store full of gear available for purchase with his name on it, but supporters would need to be able to find his Web address to buy them.
When he campaigns through the Harley-Davidson-loving state of Wisconsin, Kerry, an avid motorcyclist, rides his own bike through the streets alongside veterans. Photos of him windsurfing last summer appeared in Vogue, and the senator will ride in the 100-mile Pan Mass bike challenge in August to raise money for cancer.
These are things that are "clearly well-publicized and is something else that is not a traditional political way of communicating," said Kerry campaign spokeswoman Kelley Benander.
But with limited campaign funds and a long road ahead toward the primaries, some of these tactics may not be the best use of war chest funds, said Ron Faucheux, contributor-at-large for Campaigns and Elections.
"These types of things have always played a role in politics and certainly add color and interest ... but that ultimately doesn't win elections," he said. "Every candidate has his own gimmick and they sort of balance out each other."
The problem of being distinguished from the pack has been noticed by some, particularly late-night talk show hosts.
"According to a new CBS poll, 66 percent of Americans cannot name a single Democratic candidate running for president," Jay Leno said recently. "The other 34 percent are Democratic candidates running for president."