Suddenly Someone: Nobodies find fame in politics
Forget reality TV. The presidential campaign could be just the ticket from nowhere to notoriety.
It can be done with a heartfelt story. An off-hand remark. Or simply by having a distant connection to someone who's Somebody.
Think Sandra Fluke. She was just another outspoken college student before her defense of insurance coverage for birth control drew biting ridicule from conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh and then a sympathetic phone call from the president. Now she's got more than 35,000 Twitter followers.
Think Joe the Plumber, aka Samuel Wurzelbacher. The Ohio worker rocketed to the center of the 2008 presidential campaign after John McCain decided to play up his encounter with candidate Barack Obama over taxes. A poll at the height of the campaign found 84 percent of Americans knew that Joe the Plumber was campaigning for McCain. Now he's running for Congress.
Think Mercede Johnston.
Sarah Palin's daughter's ex-fiance's little sister managed to parlay her tangential connection to the 2008 race into a four-page photo spread in Playboy last year in which she said the 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate "screwed my whole family up."
No, it doesn't take much to claim at least a fleeting moment of political fame — for good or ill.
"It's like the fairy godmother of media taps you on the head and says, 'Oh, we're going to pay attention to you for a little while,'" says Leo Braudy, a University of Southern California professor who wrote a book on the history of fame.
"Some people shrug it off," Braudy says. "Other people are destroyed by it."
And some, like Wurzelbacher, try to prolong their moment as long as possible.
Six tips on how to make yourself a political Somebody:
BECOME A SYMBOL
It's all about turning yourself into a symbol of something bigger. Candidates are like moths to a flame when they hear a story from ordinary people that they can use to make a political point.
Example: Winifred Skinner. The 79-year-old great-grandmother met Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore when he was campaigning in Iowa in 2000 and told him that she collected soda cans to help pay for her heart medication and other prescription drugs. Gore liked her story so much he brought her to his debate with George W. Bush in Boston, and mentioned her twice. Soon her life was under a microscope, with critics questioning why she didn't get more help from her well-off son.
SAY SOMETHING OUTRAGEOUS
The more shameless the better. It's catnip to candidates who are always in need of something new to howl over.
Example: Hilary Rosen. The Democratic consultant was just another talking head on cable TV until she questioned Ann Romney's standing to talk about the economic challenges facing women, saying the GOP candidate's wife had "never worked a day in her life." Republicans seized on the dismissive comment and even Barack and Michelle Obama hastened to distance themselves from it. Rosen apologized. Ann Romney was later overheard calling Rosen's comment an "early birthday present."
MILK YOUR PEDIGREE
For good or ill, the Palin and Johnston clans have masterfully leveraged their ties to Sarah Palin into more than a few moments of fame. Bristol Palin landed a spot on "Dancing With the Stars," among other media gigs. There's a rich tradition of relatives glomming on to the political spotlight.
Example: Billy Carter. Jimmy Carter's little brother cultivated the image of a Southern good old boy when Carter ran for president in 1976 and used it to land a job promoting Billy Beer.
PANDER TO ANIMAL LOVERS
Candidates know just about any animal is good for some votes. The pets of all recent presidents have achieved minor celebrity status.
Examples: Bo Obama, the president's Portuguese water dog, has appeared in campaign ads.
George H.W. Bush argued during the 1992 campaign that "my dog Millie knows more about foreign affairs than these two bozos," referring to Democratic nominee Bill Clinton and running mate Gore.
Millie got a book deal.
START A LOVE TRIANGLE
Candidates will try hard to keep their extramarital exploits a secret, but there's a long list of "other women" who've ended up in the glare.
Examples: Rielle Hunter. The mistress to John Edwards during his unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2008 is just one of the latest to resist, and later embrace, the public attention. After initially hiding out, she went on Oprah Winfrey's show and posed for photos for GQ. Now she's on the witness list at Edwards' ongoing trial.
Donna Rice. In 1987, Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart taunted reporters to check up on his conduct after rumors surfaced that he was having an affair. Soon a photo emerged of Hart sitting on a dock with Rice on his lap near a yacht named Monkey Business. That ended Hart's campaign.
Rice became a spokesmodel for No Excuses jeans, said she turned down big bucks from Playboy and went on to serve as an advocate for children's online safety.
Candidates trying to look tough on crime love nothing better than to find a new heinous criminal to kick around.
Example: Willie Horton. In 1988, Republican operatives went after Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis with ads displaying a photo of Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who raped a woman while out on weekend furlough under a program that Dukakis had supported as Massachusetts governor.
No one's advocating that as the pathway to fleeting fame. But even a small slipup could do the trick.
When college student Kolbi Zerbest's cup of yogurt splashed the president's pants during his visit to Colorado this week, Obama laughed it off and told Zerbest she had "a good story to tell."
She did — on the "Today" show.
AP Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.