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Democrats getting in tune

Campaigns seek perfect song for their candidates

Here's a pressing question for a presidential hopeful: When Senator John F. Kerry enters a room, what song springs to mind?

"For What It's Worth," the dirge from the Vietnam days? "Walk This Way," by Aerosmith, to play up his Boston roots?

Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild," befitting a Harley-riding man? "Mama Said Knock You Out," by rapper L. L. Cool J?

This is the debate that has consumed the Kerry faithful, in the waning days of summer, on the cusp of the official campaign kickoff.

When Kerry's staff called for theme song suggestions on a campaign website this month, people wrote back with those ideas, and dozens more. They analyzed lyrics, argued the relative merits of classic rock vs. funk, and made it clear this was not a trivial matter.

"Here's the thing," wrote supporter Hugh Gurin, 36. "We have to get this right."

It is something political operatives already know. A few well-chosen bars of music can accomplish what advertisers call "branding," solidifying a candidate's image, conveying a theme. The best campaign songs are legendary, said Darrell West, professor of political science at Brown University. Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA" was Ronald Reagan's assertion of national pride. In 1992, Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop" was Bill Clinton's way of saying that a new generation had entered politics.

A dud, meanwhile, can be an embarrassing distraction. In 1996, Bob Dole had to stop using "Soul Man" -- which he had changed to "Dole Man" -- after the song's copyright owners sent him a threatening letter.

For the nine members of this year's Democratic field, making the best musical choices will not be easy, West said. The right song has to speak to more than one generation, without alienating any of them. It has to convey the right message without hinting at the wrong ones.

"The music audience has fragmented into a lot of different niches," West said. "You have young people who are into rap, some people are into hip-hop, older people might be into classical music. It becomes hard to find that unifying theme."

Each campaign is handling the decision in its own way -- some settling on official songs, some using different music for different occasions. Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri launched his campaign with Tina Turner's "The Best," said spokesman Erik Smith -- in part because Ike and Tina Turner played at one of Gephardt's high school dances. Lately, the campaign has been using "Let the Day Begin," by The Call, after a Teamsters organizer played it at some rallies.

The staff of Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut chose Sister Sledge's "We Are Family," spokesman Jano Cabrera said, hoping to remind voters that "all Democrats share a core set of values." Senator Bob Graham of Florida has revived a 19th-century tradition of original jingles; on the trail, he has been known to croon "We've Got a Friend in Bob Graham."

Senator John Edwards of North Carolina has lately used Smashmouth's cover of "I'm a Believer," the Monkees hit penned by Neil Diamond. The Rev. Al Sharpton campaigns to Bob Marley and Peter Tosh's "Get Up, Stand Up." Carol Moseley Braun, the former Illinois senator, has used "You Gotta Be," by R&B vocalist Melissa Desiree. Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio is using John Lennon's "Imagine."

Gurin, the Kerry fan, however, gives his nod to former Vermont governor Howard Dean, who tends to enter rooms to "Little Less Conversation," as performed by Elvis Presley and remixed by Junkie XL.

It fits Dean's "moderately to very angry" image, said Gurin, an advertising copywriter from San Francisco. "When you hear that song, you expect to see a little short guy from Vermont to walk out on stage."

For Kerry, Gurin first suggested "Mama Said Knock You Out," in a fit of anger at the Bush administration. Then he listened to the lyrics, which did not seem particularly productive: "Don't call it a comeback / I been here for years / Rockin' my peers and puttin suckas in fear."

Now, he is leaning toward "Walk This Way" -- the Aerosmith and Run-DMC version -- which he considers shocking enough to stick. And he is sure about one thing: The songs Kerry has played on the stump so far, Bruce Springsteen's "No Surrender" and Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down," are ready for retirement.

"It sounds like a bunch of old white guys in a focus group thought it up," Gurin said. "It needs a little originality and a little punch."

Sure enough, though, Springsteen figured heavily among the suggestions that flooded onto Kerry's website this month. Both "No Surrender" and "I Won't Back Down" are still in the running, said Kerry spokeswoman Kelley Benander, who said a decision is coming soon.

The rejects, so far: the title song from the musical "Hair," Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror," and Moby's "Body Rock."

The supporters have found reasons to shelve a few others. In nearly a week's worth of postings, they dissected the communist underpinnings of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," questioned whether Vietnam protest songs were hopelessly old, and pondered what the Republicans might say about the Edgar Winter Group's "Free Ride."

And when someone proposed John Mellencamp's "Pink Houses," someone else shot back that the lyrics are a no-go, because of these lines: "They told me, when I was younger, / `Boy, you gonna be president' / But just like everything else, those old crazy dreams / Just kinda came and went."

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