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Crucial presidential ingredient: optimism

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Elizabeth Dole has it. George W. Bush has it. But Pat Buchanan most definitely does not.

Optimism is the characteristic shared by these first two Republican presidential candidates, and it's one reason why Mrs. Dole finished a strong third in the recent Iowa straw poll and Mr. Buchanan, with his "slashing message," finished fifth, says Dole pollster Linda DiVall.

Indeed, history shows that optimism is a crucial ingredient in presidential campaigns. It taps America's can-do spirit, and once a president takes office, it helps sustain him over the long haul. Presidents Clinton, Reagan, Eisenhower, and Franklin D. Roosevelt - who all have been elected to two terms or more - share that trait of hopefulness.

But Americans won't fall for pie-in-the-sky optimism, analysts warn. There must be understandable, substantive reasons behind a candidate's outlook, and it must be tempered with realism, says Wayne Fields, director of American Cultural Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

Especially in perilous times, "optimism can be so blatantly out of place, that unless a candidate balances it, it won't work," says Mr. Fields, who adds that a president has to earn the right to be hopeful.

Roosevelt did it with the "fireside chats" he held throughout his presidency. Known for his ebullience, FDR could justify the optimism characterized by his Depression-era campaign song "Happy Days Are Here Again" with the promise of the New Deal.

Television's impact

For the most part, optimism as a winning presidential ingredient is mostly a 20th-century phenomenon, says Fields. Prior to the television era, presidential hopefuls were more deliberate, thoughtful, and meditative. Yet he sees another another vast, historical influence at work - the transformation of America's sense of national unity.


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