WASHINGTON (AP) — “Hooah!”
“Did I do that right?” Michelle Obama asked after sounding a battle cry to soldiers at Fort Stewart in Georgia last month.
“Phew,” she sighed when the audience signaled its approval.
The local shout-out seems so natural when done right. And so cringe-worthy when flubbed.
Any good politician knows the importance of finding common ground with a local audience. It’s Speechmaking 101, whether accomplished through strategic praise for sports teams, cultural treasures or local figures.
Try too hard, though, and risk instant turnoff.
It’s a balancing act requiring careful preparation and being authentic, says Gary Schmidt, a past president of Toastmasters International.
“You get a lot of pressure and messaging from your campaign team that you must say or do this,” Schmidt says, “but ultimately you have to be yourself.”
Here’s how politicians are lathering up the locals in Campaign 2012:
Call it the Lake Wobegon syndrome. Politicians love to single out local officials in the audience. Somehow, these folks always seem to be extraordinary — like the “above average” mythical children of Lake Wobegon on public radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion.”
In recent weeks, President Barack Obama has praised Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin as “one of the best governors in the country;” Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders of Vermont as “outstanding senators;” Miro Weinberger of Burlington, Vt., as an “outstanding mayor-elect;” former Maine Sen. George Mitchell as “one of the true statesmen in the history of American politics;” Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree as “outstanding;” Small Business Administrator Karen Mills as “one of the best SBA administrators of all time;” Columbus, Ohio, Mayor Michael Coleman and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed as “outstanding;” Rep. John Lewis of Georgia as “one of the finest men I know;” Georgia Reps. Sanford Bishop, David Scott, Hank Johnson as “outstanding;” Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan as “one of the finest attorney generals in the country;” Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois as “one of my dearest friends;” Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland as “one of the finest members of the United States Senate;” former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine as “one of the finest men I know;” Virginia Rep. Jim Moran as an “outstanding congressman.” And so on.
The superlatives stack up like cordwood. How special.
Points of local pride — mountains, lakes, industries and the like — are popular shout-out subjects for any well-versed candidate.
Mitt Romney, a Michigan native, tried out a three-fer while campaigning in his home state before its February primary, as he slathered praise on the state’s “very special” lakes, its Detroit-made autos and its trees that are just the “right height.”
His multiple references to just-right trees drew some quizzical looks and ridicule from national observers but Romney found an unlikely defender in filmmaker and liberal standard-bearer Michael Moore, himself a Michigan native.
Romney “does have that right,” Moore flatly told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. “The trees in Michigan are just the right height. In Wisconsin, they go way — you can’t even see the top. In Ohio, just a bunch of shrubbery.”
Giving shout-outs to local sports teams is a genre all its own. Candidates walk a fine line in praising local teams without breaking faith with their own hometown favorites. Obama, something of a sports junkie, generally manages to pull it off.
In a visit to Ohio State University during the NCAA basketball playoffs in March, Obama acknowledged that “a presidential visit isn’t even close to being the biggest thing this weekend on campus.” He made sure to point out that he had Ohio State’s Buckeyes heading to the Final Four when he filled in his brackets — “and I promise I didn’t do it because I knew I was coming here.”
Even Obama sometimes has to study up on his sports allusions.
When the president visited Florida Atlantic University last month, he gave a hearty shout-out to the school’s Fighting Owls. A White House video showed the president getting a quick backstage tutorial before the speech on how to make the proper Owls hand gesture.
Sometimes it’s best simply to acknowledge one’s differences rather than try to adopt the local vernacular.
Romney did a little of both as he campaigned in the Southern primaries.
“Morning, ya’ll,” the former Massachusetts governor told an audience in Jackson, Miss. “I got started this morning right with a biscuit and some cheesy grits.”
Romney admitted, though, that his southern education was a work in progress, saying the South was “a bit of an away game” for him.
“I’m learning to say ‘ya’ll’ and I like grits,” he allowed in Pascagoula, Miss. “Strange things are happening to me.”
Even skilled politicians sometimes acknowledge the political realities of reaching out to the local audience.
Mrs. Obama at times declares that she’s giving “a good-old shout-out” to her local hosts.
Vice President Joe Biden took the honesty tactic to a whole new level last month when he told the crowd at a breakfast fundraiser in Washington that “you all look dull as hell. … The dullest audience I have ever spoken to. Just sitting there staring at me.”
“Pretend you like me!” he pleaded.
The request seemed to work. Biden got a friendly laugh.
Mistakes will be made.
Biden, known for meandering introductions, strayed a wee bit too far when he recognized the Irish prime minister during a St. Patrick’s Day celebration in 2010. He noted that the prime minister’s mother had lived on Long Island, “God rest her soul.”
Bless Biden’s soul, the prime minister’s mother was still very much alive.
“God bless her soul,” Biden stammered. “I’ve got to get this straight.”
That oops moment pales next to a 2004 flub by Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. He committed what many in Wisconsin might consider an unpardonable offense when he referred to Lambeau Field, hallowed ground to Green Bay Packers fans, as “Lambert Field.”
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