IMAGE: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Cheryl Senter  /  AP
Republican presidential hopeful, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., can be seen as casting himself as a promise keeper without tooting his own horn.
updated 11/11/2007 12:07:10 PM ET 2007-11-11T17:07:10

On the campaign trail, the presidential contenders know that closing arguments count - the final words of their stump speeches that audiences take home with them.

Democrat Barack Obama often ends with a rousing call to action. John Edwards makes a quieter pledge to meet "the moral test of our generation." Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bill Richardson turn to history to say what kind of presidents they'd like to be.

Republican John McCain punctuates his stump speech with a somber story about a soldier's death, while Mitt Romney ends with an ode to optimism. Less prone to rhetorical flourishes, Rudy Giuliani sticks to a boiled-down take-it-or-leave-it message.

All can be effective, experts say.

The politics of rhetoric
Candidates often save their most emotional material for the end, after they've established their credibility and followed up with the nuts and bolts of their plans, said John Adams, a professor of communications at Hamilton College in New York.

"Usually, speakers will pick up the pace toward the end - it's like NASCAR rhetoric," he says.

Stories that use vivid characters to explain a moral are particularly effective, said Adams, who believes audience members also like candidates who show they can learn from their experiences. Obama's rallying cry is an example.

In what has become a trademark ending, Obama recently described arriving in Greenwood, S.C., in a foul mood only to end up inspired by an elderly city councilwoman who was hollering "Fired up!" and "Ready to go!" to the 20 or so folks who showed up to meet him.

"Your voice can change the world," Obama concludes in his speech later, leading his audience in the same chant. "Are you fired up? Are you ready to go? Fired up! Ready to go! Fired up! Ready to go! Let's go change the world!"

Obama's speech also gets high marks from Jane Elmes-Crahall, an expert on political rhetoric, who praises it as "brilliant storytelling, both strategically and the way he delivers it."

"He has not just the repetition people use to pace a story, but concrete details," said Elmes-Crahall, professor of communication at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. "The details become vivid and memorable, and at the end there is a final emotional appeal that says 'You as an individual voter, carry this with you.'"

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Craig Smith, who worked as a speechwriter for former President Ford, was less enthusiastic about Obama's story, which clocks in at nearly six minutes. "Way too long," he said. "It takes forever to get to the punch line."

Selling commitment
Like Obama, Edwards urges his audiences to join him on a mission. The former trial lawyer lists all the people who inspire him - from his father's co-workers at the mill to breast cancer patients like his wife - then broadens the scope to past generations.

"I also run on behalf of, really, 20 generations of Americans who came before us, and every one of them ensured that their children would have a better life than they had. I think this is more than politics. I think this is the great moral test of our generation," he says. "But I will tell you this, I do believe that together we're going to meet that test."

"He threads that quality of commitment to someone he loves all the way out to successively larger collectives, until finally that same commitment that begins with his commitment to his father extends all the way out to the American people," said Adams, the Hamilton College professor.

Other candidates use borrowed stories to make their final points. Clinton describes former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's 1995 trip to Europe, during which she met families who had saved flags given to them by American soldiers at the end of World War II. When Albright asked them why they had kept the flags, she was told, "Because we love America and we love America's values and we always hoped someday we'd be able to live in freedom like Americans."

"I want to be the president who not only restores those feelings about our country around the world, I want us to believe that about ourselves again," Clinton says.

"Very subtly, it's all a reminder that her candidacy is historic," said Elmes-Crahall, who called the story the most sophisticated of the bunch. "Quoting Madeleine Albright, the first woman secretary of state - subtle reminder. She's a friend - subtle reminder. Putting it all in that context of the Bill Clinton administration and what was going on - also very subtle," she said.

But to Adams, the story doesn't ring quite true.

"She had an experience of a friend of hers having an experience and she's trying to translate her friend's experience into something about herself," he said. "It doesn't work quite as well as Barack Obama actually having this experience, and John McCain having this experience."

Emotional taglines
Since August, McCain has been recounting an emotional meeting with a mother who asked him to wear a bracelet bearing the name of her son, who was killed in Iraq.

"She said to me, 'Senator McCain, I want you to make me one promise ... and that is that you will do everything in your power to make sure my son's death was not in vain,'" he says in his speech. "I think you understand very clearly, as I do, that puts everybody's priorities and ambitions in the right perspective."

The story works because McCain is able to cast himself as someone who keeps his promises without tooting his own horn, Smith said.

"It has some emotion to it, and it gets the other person saying what McCain really wants to say," said Smith, who teaches campaign persuasion at California State University, Long Beach.

Richardson also tells a tale both somber and effective, the experts said. Explaining how he'd like to be remembered when he dies, Richardson describes a reporter jumping off President Franklin Roosevelt's funeral train to interview an anguished man standing near the tracks.

"He said, 'Sir, you're obviously very upset. You must've known the president,'" Richardson says. "The man turned to the reporter and said, 'No, I didn't know the president. But he knew me.' That's the kind of president I'd like to be."

"Wow," said Elmes-Crahall. "The clear point that Richardson is making is, 'I want to be remembered as a president who understands individual Americans. I don't have a grand rhetorical vision for what things should be like, but I understand it from your point of view.'"

Though she praised the story itself, Elmes-Crahall said Richardson's delivery could use some work. Romney, on the other hand, stood out as one of the most polished speakers, she said.

Shared principles and plain talk
Rather than tell a story, Romney often wraps things up by summarizing his travels around the country, noting that everywhere he goes, he is asked if he shares the values of that region.

"Whatever we call 'em, they're the same bedrock principles. The people of America love this land. We're patriotic. We're willing to sacrifice for our country. We love our families," he says.

Though some of the experts said it would be hard to argue with any of Romney's broad themes, Smith questioned his approach given that Romney has been accused of changing his positions on important issues.

"I think it's a bad story for him, honestly," he said. "Here he tells a story where he says, 'Do you have Southern values?' and he says yes. 'Do you have heartland values?', and he says yes. And you think, 'My God, this guy is all things to all people.'"

Of all the major candidates, Giuliani packs the least rhetorical punch, Smith and the other experts agreed. With no set ending, Giuliani has been known to finish with a simple suggestion that voters check out his 12 campaign promises and decide for themselves.

"For me, these things are real. I've had results like this before. We're about actually getting things done, and that's why I'm running for president," he says.

The message, Adams says, is: "My opponents may be pressing all your buttons, but I've got a plan. I'm a practical guy. I'm not going to send you out into the world with your eyes blurred with tears."

"People like plain talk, but people love to come to the judgment that this person in front of me really cares," Adams said. "They care about the past, they care about the present, they care about the future, and they care about me."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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