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Running for president, on a first-name basis

Hopefuls think that familiarity breeds rapport

Giuliani campaign strategists believe that 'Rudy!' is more than a tabloid headline and, like other political operatives, are banking on building support with informality. Giuliani campaign strategists believe that "Rudy!" is more than a tabloid headline and, like other political operatives, are banking on building support with informality. (ETHAN MILLER/GETTY IMAGES)
Email|Print| Text size + By Marcella Bombardieri
Globe Staff / November 11, 2007

Republicans who have not already declared that "I'm with Fred" might be enticed to "ask Mitt anything" at a town hall meeting or to explore a webpage devoted to answering the question, "Why Rudy?"

Democrats have the opportunity to join Team Hillary, perhaps as Hillblazer youth activists or, if they have deep pockets, as HillRaisers. High school students are signing up to be Barack Stars.

Never have so many presidential campaigns so aggressively branded their candidates with their first names, and none more so than Hillary Clinton's. Even in her detailed 15-page healthcare reform plan, it is difficult to find her last name. Staffers, advisers, and friends generally speak of her as Hillary, not senator or Mrs. Clinton.

Republicans Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, and Mitt Romney also lean heavily on first names for signs, websites, and slogans, while Democrat Barack Obama's campaign uses his first name more selectively.

Among the top tier of candidates, only the Johns, Edwards and McCain, are not in the game, their given names apparently too plain to make a mark.

With each candidate, particular circumstances may argue in favor of a first name: for Clinton to distinguish herself from her husband, the former president; for Giuliani to glide over a hard-to-spell, ethnic last name; for Thompson to seem down home; and for Romney to make a campaign sign snappy.

"Mitt is a fun name," said Eric Fehrnstrom, a spokesman for the Romney campaign, which has a website offering Mitt TV, full of ads and videos, and Mitt Market, a flea market for supporters.

"If it were Bartholomew, that would be a different story," Fehrnstrom said. "We are very blessed we have a candidate with a monosyllabic name."

The outbreak of first names also says something about the informality of popular culture and about the American desire to feel a personal connection to political leaders.

"I think that people make that choice for you," said US Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican who ran for the White House in the 1996 and 2000 election cycles, with bumper stickers that declared, "Lamar!"

He said that's what Tennesseans called him while he was governor, when he had already developed his trademark plaid shirt look.

Alexander helped Thompson get his start in politics and said of his fellow Tennessean that he "can't remember anyone ever calling him Mr. Thompson in his whole life; he's a small-town boy."

"We're getting a lot more to a first-name culture," Alexander said. "You've got Oprah, the soccer players, and Bono. To tell you the truth, I don't know why."

Earlier in American history, nicknames were all the rage. Andrew Jackson was Old Hickory, and supporters would rally around a hickory pole. Abraham Lincoln was Honest Abe.

It is said that the ubiquitous word OK, originally stood for Old Kinderhook, President Martin Van Buren's nickname, based on his hometown in New York, said Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz, who believes that nicknames endeared politicians to their public without undermining their dignity.

President Eisenhower was known simply as Ike. Then during the 1960s, politicians went by their initials: JFK, LBJ, and RFK.

Then came Jimmy Carter. While he mostly campaigned as Carter, his insistence on being called Jimmy, not James, rankled critics who thought it was a symptom of the Georgian's unpresidential demeanor.

Ronald Reagan struck the right note, Wilentz said, because Americans knew that his wife, Nancy, called him Ronnie, but few would dare do so themselves.

"It's good to have a little gravitas associated with the presidency," Wilentz said.

Clinton, the first woman to be a top-tier presidential candidate, is trying both to show her seriousness as a potential commander in chief and to counteract an image as being cold and calculating.

But a spokeswoman denied that there is any strategy behind using Hillary.

"It's just her name," said Kathleen Strand, who pointed out that Clinton did the same when she ran for US Senate from New York.

Giuliani has also long been known by his first name; Rudy is a New York tabloid headline favorite.

In conversation, it is striking how voters almost always say Hillary and often Rudy and Mitt, as well.

Many say they like it. "Hillary stands on a podium to be seen, but she lives on the same level as the rest of us," said one Clinton enthusiast, Alan Berman, 59, of Tilton, N.H.

Although Romney was seen as serious, even stiff, as governor of Massachusetts, his advisers say he is an informal guy at heart who has long corrected people who call him governor.

The campaign uses Mitt on some signs and bumper stickers, and Romney on others, because he does not yet "have the universal name recognition of a Rudy or a Hillary," Fehrnstrom said.

But that will change, he said. "My guess is if he becomes president, there will be a lot of children born named Mitt."

Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com.

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