Rainville, Welch polish images
By WILSON RING The Associated Press | October 08,2006
MONTPELIER — When Peter Welch hits the campaign trail, he's often accompanied by Pepper, a red-haired mutt. In his public appearances and his TV commercials, the dog — a present bought by his late wife, at a dog pound — is never far from the Democratic congressional candidate.
As campaign images go, it's a warm and furry one.
And it's starkly different than the one put forth by Martha Rainville, his Republican opponent. The former Vermont National Guard chief appears in her commercials as a camouflage-clad soldier who bucked the Pentagon on behalf of her troops.
The clashing styles have underscored the differences in the two candidates for Vermont's lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Welch, the state Senate president pro tem, didn't intend for Pepper to become a part of his campaign. She was drafted by a crew filming a commercial, and soon became a kind of mascot, traveling with Welch and frequently in demand at his campaign events.
"I think Pepper is a nice touch," said Middlebury College Political Science Prof. Eric Davis.
"There's no question Pepper is going to Congress and she's taking Peter with her," said campaign manager Carolyn Dwyer.
Welch has focused his campaign on his record of leadership in the Legislature and his promise to stand up to the Bush administration.
But his campaign officials don't mind the way the 80-pound Shepherd-Chow mix has added a dimension to his image.
Rainville, on the other hand, has gone for a harder image, playing up her role as National Guard chief and promising to take care of Vermont's interests in Washington.
"I think her advertising is trying to talk less about issues and is long on her record of public service; she wants to clean up Congress," Davis said. "She's trying to present herself as the noble amateur."
To be sure, the main point both campaigns are trying to get across is their policy positions, which give Vermont voters two distinct candidates to choose from.
"Peter is an experienced leader with a track record of bringing people together and getting things done. He has clear, thoughtful positions on the issues and clear sense of what he can accomplish in Congress," said Dwyer. "He knows that issues like the deficit, health care, energy policy and Iraq will not be dealt with as long as the Republican leadership continues to control the agenda in Congress."
The Rainville campaign sees no need for ways to soften her image, which is depicted in one ad showing her wind-swept and in battle fatigues, holding a tiny Vermont National Guard battle flag.
"What this campaign is about is Martha Rainville, her principals, her record of integrity and leadership," said campaign spokesman Brendan McKenna. "The campaign doesn't need to create an image of Martha Rainville. All we're doing is highlighting Martha's service, her extraordinary service to her community, her state and the nation."
Through it all, Vermonters have been treated to old-style, pure politics in which each candidate provides a distinct choice for voters.
Welch wants to eliminate tax breaks for the richest Americans, reform health care, raise the minimum wage and preserve Social Security.
Rainville wants to clean up government and restore integrity, cut taxes, reduce government spending and make it easier for Americans to buy health insurance.
But image carries important messages, too, according to Dartmouth College Government Prof. Linda Fowler.
"Sometimes candidates appear in shirt sleeves or they wear plaid shirts. The point is to create a sense of empathy," she said.
In Vermont, politicians don't want to wear expensive suits, but at the same time they don't want to appear too casual.
Welch's ads with Pepper are a way to reach the coveted independent voters, she said.
"It provides a dimension of personality. Are they going to write about him for the dog? I doubt it. But for low information voters it might keep them from flipping the channel," Fowler said.