Anybody can play armchair critic of the candidates' advance teams. Just remember: All press images of candidates are as visually scripted as a campaign commercial. The location of an event, the angle of a shot and everything that is in that shot -- buildings, bridges, banners and people -- have all been predetermined. Or should have been.
Here's a handicapping of the four major candidates so far:
Advance Team: Bush has the old party pros working for him.
Ideal Images: Given his loss in New Hampshire, Bush needs to convince us that people want him to be president. He has to steal John McCain's populist look. Crowd events, crowd events, crowd events: overflow situations, packed halls and supporters from all walks of life carrying hand-painted, personalized signs. Also, if Bush has the interpersonal charisma that some reports claim, then advance teams should set up close encounters with supporters and let the press get right in their faces.
Bad Images: Le Petit Prince. Bush's support from the GOP establishment may be crucial, but it presents an image-bite problem. If the Bush advance team keeps flanking him in royal-blue splendor -- as they did during his talking-head reaction interviews after losing to McCain in New Hampshire -- the message will read: The Anointed One. This weekend, he was on the steps of the Sumter Courthouse in South Carolina with Republican bosses and a huge American flag behind him. Bad move.
Advance Team: Clearly a green group.
Ideal Images: But green is OK for McCain. An old colleague, Josh King, who is one of the best advance men I know, recently said McCain was doing anti-advance: plain stages, no frills, just him and a mike. The result is an image bite of his signature "Straight Talk Express," and it will work. Last week in South Carolina, they placed the stage so that the sun caught the back of the candidate's head and cast strange shadows on his face. The large crowd had to squint in the sun -- they all looked sick to their stomachs. And yet the event had a populist spontaneity to it. The other image bite he needs to continue getting is his on-the-ground support from regular folks. The same day Bush was on the steps of the courthouse, McCain was on the steps of the mayor's house in Beaufort. The press was on the steps with him and captured the huge audience over his shoulder. Perfect image bite, doubled in power by running next to Bush's establishment shot.
Bad Images: If McCain keeps winning, he'll have to lose the scrappy routine. For now, he benefits from the perception that he is on a journey beyond his control: The people have picked him up and are marching him forth -- so no presidentially dressed stages or conservative blue backdrops. Better yet, no backdrop at all.
Advance Team: Green.
Ideal Images: Bradley and Gore are not much different on substance. Bradley has to get stylish in his advance work. We should see him in bold locations -- the Bay Bridge, again, was a great idea. Bradley can say he's against "politics as usual" but it won't gel unless his advance team can help us visualize it. They need to break new ground in advance work and create fresher, bolder images. Starting suggestions: basketballs, giant photos of civil rights leaders, hospital wards.
Bad Images: Gore has the flag-and-podium thing down. Bradley will not captivate TV producers with more of the same.
Advance Team: An eight-year, two-campaign institutional memory for advance.
Ideal Images: The motto for his advance is: "Steady on." They should do events that are elegant and unsurprising. Unlike Bush, he should actually be courting images that make him seem like the anointed one. Gore with a blue backdrop is enough for now. Anything more would look like he's trying too hard.
Bad Images: Other than trying too hard, he must keep away from images that connote his liabilities. No rallies at Buddhist temples, or with union workers at a steel factory.