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Forgo the Soundbite? It's a Noble — and Risky — Strategy

Former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert is trying to attract support for his U.S. Senate campaign with a detailed jobs program that combines his business experience with his public policy vision. His seven-second soundbite? “You just can’t put this in a seven-second soundbite.”

Tom Leppert, former mayor of Dallas

Like other Texas politicians before him — Republican Tom Luce and Democrat John Odam come to mind — Tom Leppert, the former mayor of Dallas, is trying to attract support for his U.S. Senate campaign with a detailed jobs program that combines his business experience with his public policy vision. His seven-second soundbite? “You just can’t put this in a seven-second soundbite.”

This seems straightforward, the sort of thing you would find in a civics textbook. A citizen sees a problem, has an idea about how to solve it, proposes it to friends and neighbors, refines it, files for office, rides the wave and gets elected. The clouds part, the angels sing, the credits roll. But it’s a high-risk strategy.

Luce, a Dallas lawyer noted for his association with Ross Perot and his education reform efforts and expertise, ran for governor in 1990 saying he wanted to ignore all of the regular political tricks and conventions and get in with the quality of his ideas, including a proposal to finance public schools with block grants that allowed more local control.

Odam, a Houston lawyer, ran for the Senate in 1996 with a campaign based on the idea that because he was new to politics and wasn’t taking money from special interest groups, he wasn’t beholden to those interests and was best positioned to institute campaign finance reform (he also made a point of hitting each of the state’s 254 county courthouses). Neither won.

Ron Paul plays the serious-man role in every election, campaigning on his ideas and proposals about limited government and individual freedoms with a sort of damn-the-torpedoes regard for the political tools — polling, messaging, targeting that would make him a more conventional candidate. It’s not that these candidates don’t play the game — it’s that the buzz of consultants and advisers doesn’t seem to penetrate as deeply. Their campaigns are often criticized as unpragmatic, quixotic and idealistic.

Sometimes, they win. And even when they lose, they have an influence on the policies of the eventual winner.

Leppert is no tenderfoot. He’s a business executive who was elected mayor of Dallas in June 2007. That’s not a statewide job, and it wasn’t a partisan election, but he’s not new to campaigning and governing. And he almost sounds like he doesn’t want the Senate job if he has to win it the conventional way.

“In Washington and on the campaign trail, all you hear from candidates are seven-second soundbites,” he said. “Why would you expect them to be able to solve these problems if that’s how they get elected?”

In a year when many Republican candidates are running against Washington and Barack Obama, Leppert is focused on jobs. Not that he’s for Washington or Obama — his proposal includes shrinking the federal government, balancing the budget and repealing Obama’s health care laws. He wants to cut regulations on small businesses and make it easier to develop domestic energy sources. He calls it a jobs program but includes major changes for Social Security and Medicare. The “jobs” part is the framing device for everything he’s talking about. And talk he will: “I will go on about any of these issues as long as you want,” he said during an interview.

Leppert, like other candidates, doesn’t want to talk about his campaign — advertising, traveling, polling, or messaging. But he’ll jump to the phone to talk about his policy proposals, prompting a listener every few minutes to visit his Web site and read the voluminous details. He’s got tax cuts, spending limits, two-year budgeting, federal sunset laws, welfare reform, federal job cuts, limits on unions congressional term limits and restraints on pay for lawmakers and more.

It’s an uphill battle, and not just because the diet consists of more than political red meat. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a proven statewide candidate who is wealthy and also has the advantage of incumbency, is the presumptive front-runner. Ted Cruz, the former state solicitor general, has been generating buzz with conservative grassroots leaders. Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones is in the hunt, and U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul is mulling a run. He, like Dewhurst, could finance his own race.

Leppert’s not unarmed. He’s well known in Dallas and has put more than $2 million of his own in the race. He’s working hard and he’s got a program: “We’re trying to have a serious discussion about a serious problem,” he said.

If only he can get people to listen for more than seven seconds.

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