Varnish Remover

Mom for Governor

Cool Mom, produced by Murphy, Pintak, Gautier, Hudome Agency Inc. for Whitman for Governor.

Cool Mom gives us the softer side of New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman, drawing viewer attention away from polls (three in just the last week) that show her in a dead heat with Democratic challenger Jim McGreevey. Besides giving New Jersey voters a much-needed break from Whitman’s attacks on her opponent and his “high-tax philosophy,” it is also a well-calculated response to McGreevey’s attacks on Whitman as clueless snob and insensitive patrician. Produced by Republican media adviser Mike Murphy, this spot disdains contentious facts and boring stats in favor of fuzz. It focuses on Whitman as Mom–a cool one, if her kids, Taylor and Kate, are to be believed–and in so doing recalls a radio ad that Whitman used to good effect when trying to revive a sagging campaign in 1993.

That ad had Kate talking of her mother as a role model. This one has both kids going the same route. Not only does Mom get the credit for instilling in him basic values–integrity and responsibility and honesty; the importance of keeping one’s promises–but she also gets extra points for having taught by example. As important, perhaps, is that she has been a caring, fun companion, the glue that keeps the family “tight-knit.”

The opening frames show the Whitmans on a lush, picket-fenced green, making no apologies for what is obviously a life of privilege. A football is tossed–and almost missed–amid much laughter and camaraderie, reprising what is arguably one of the most memorable images of modern politics, that of the Kennedys playing touch football at Hyannisport. No matter that some folks have a bigger lawn, these images are meant to say: What matters is heart, the desire to do good. The idea that wealth is venial if pressed into public service is a harder sell for a Republican than it is for a Democrat (even FDR was lambasted as being a traitor to his class, remember?). But Whitman’s intentions, insists Cool Mom, are unimpeachable and always have been, her commitment to her various roles absolute (“she has that ability to go home and forget about all the political stuff and be a … mom”).

The testimonials from these clean-cut, well-adjusted kids (to say nothing of the family resemblance) make a clear play for the soccer-mom vote–a segment that attack ads have been known to alienate. That aside, Whitman’s opponents have sought, in recent weeks, to undermine her popularity among female voters by attacking her handling of sexual-harassment allegations against two Republican officials. Cool Mom would regain that ground–and wreak its own subtle havoc (McGreevey is going through a divorce, and his daughter, 4-year-old Morag, lives in Canada with her mother).

Whitman’s allegedly successful separation of personal from political does not, however, extend to this ad. Images of the governor at work–signing bills, making speeches–splice a story that is told by her children. Taylor, speaking to camera, lauds “what she’s done for the state,” as a shot of Whitman amid cheering supporters (one prominently uniformed) reminds voters that it is she who deserves credit for the decrease in crime. And she has “stuck with what she said she was going to do” (there’s no denying that she cut income taxes–so what if property taxes then went up?).

The images flow thick: Whitman, baseball cap and all, mingling easily at what looks like a transportation event (“what she does, she does to help New Jersey”); Whitman behind a sign that trumpets her “Work First” program, then a shot of her hugging a politically correct mix of kids (“she loves this state”). As Kate points out, the governor “wants to do the best that she can” for her voters. Cool Mom invites its viewers to look beyond an administration’s shortfalls to the character–or, at least, the intentions–of the woman at its helm. Less obviously clever than McGreevey’s caricature of Whitman, the spot makes artful use of the personal to validate the political. Whether it can trump an opponent’s attacks and ease an electorate’s frustrations remains, of course, to be seen.

–Robert Shrum

Robert Shrum is a leading Democratic political consultant.