BOB GARFIELD'S AD REVIEW;CLINTON DOLES OUT GOP PLATITUDES

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He's not a Republican, but he plays one on TV.

As Bill Clinton's re-election drive begins in earnest, the president's first TV ads from Squier Knapp Ochs, Washington, embrace-or, more to the point, co-opt-themes lately associated with the GOP.

"Our first challenge is to cherish our children, and strengthen America's families," he says, in excerpts from the State of the Union message, intercut with shots of salt-of-the-earth, caring, hardworking family-minded 100% white Americans.

"They must be able to buy health insurance policies that they do not lose when they change jobs, and to make up to $10,000 a year of college tuition tax deductible. And preserve Medicare and Medicaid.

"I challenge this Congress to send me a bipartisan welfare reform bill that will really move people from welfare to work. We have got to work together if we want America to work."

Strengthening the family? Welfare reform? All he needs to do is suggest an assault weapon in every pot and he'll pretty much be restating 1992's Republican platform. This is what pundits have called the "triangulation" strategy, but which advertising people understand as good, old-fashioned pre-emption.

Every time Clinton mentions family values, he is pulling an arrow from the opponent's quiver-a strategy that has served him well for the past year. Having been elected as a so-called New Democrat, and then almost immediately losing credibility during the "Don't ask, don't tell" debacle, Clinton was a sitting duck through the healthcare debate for Republican charges that he was just another bleeding-heart old Democrat: Teddy Kennedy in elephant's clothing.

Whitewater, Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones put together haven't done nearly the damage wrought by perceptions of the tax-and-spend, big-government-loving Democrat who coddles the welfare-sucking poor with midnight basketball while dreaming up ways to saddle taxpayers with newer and bigger bureaucracies. Campaigning against this caricature two years ago, the GOP captured both houses of Congress.

For Clinton, it has been a long march back, accomplished mainly by daring, broad-daylight raids of the enemy arsenal. Was that the president before the joint session of Congress vowing to shrink the federal government? It was. At least in his rhetoric, candidate Clinton has been nudging himself ever further to the right-not only to regain his New Democrat credibility, but also to make his nemesis Newt Gingrich, and other Republican revolutionaries, seem extreme. And polls suggest the electorate is buying.

In spite of the (utterly reprehensible) classically Democratic tactic of politicizing, and fear-mongering in, the debate over controlling the spiraling growth of Medicare, President Clinton imitates a Republican quite well.

Frighteningly well.

For instance, it cannot be an accident that the usual rainbow of diverse Americans is missing from the inspiring images of this kickoff commercial. It was the white middle class that propelled the Republican revolution, and it is the white middle class the president is catering to here.

This is marketing, after all. First you find out what audience you need to be talking to. Then you find out what that consumer wants. Then you manufacture it. Then you make it look good on TV.

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