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WASHINGTON - Change is in the air. And in the press releases. And on the political banners.


And just in case anyone missed it, politicians are now filling the airwaves and book shelves with “change,” possibly the most highly employed word of the political season thus far.


Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., is putting her “Change + Experience” slogan into a television ad that goes by the same handle and begins airing in Iowa and New Hampshire this week. Fellow Democratic Sen. Barack Obama’s “change” ads are on the way. So are those of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.


GOP leaders are talking about the need for something different, too, with former House speaker and could-be candidate Newt Gingrich now promoting a new approach to fighting the war on terror.


The sub-title? “Real Change Means Real Change.”


The source of the magic in this year’s magic word is no secret. With President Bush and the war in Iraq both unpopular, Americans are seeking something new from their elected leaders - and that the sentiment will drive the next presidential election.


Recent polls bolster the notion, with one survey even suggesting that some voters actually value the prospect of change more than the experience of candidates seeking the presidency. And history certainly bears out the idea that, when the country comes upon hard times, Americans usually embrace the candidate who most embodies the promise of a new day.


But even as candidates and party leaders begin to utter the word with increasing frequency, it’s not at all clear which candidate or even which party will legitimately lay claim to the mantle of change.


While “new and improved” is an age-old labeling gimmick, it historically works only for products - and candidates - who credibly offer to fix the right thing.


“People tend to want something new when they think the country is on the wrong track,” said Mike Murphy, a prominent Republican strategist, “but they look for candidates who seem like credible and effective agents of change.”


Franklin D. Roosevelt offered the “New Deal” when voters felt swamped in Depression-era misery. John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” meant hope and purpose when people feared the Soviet threat. Bill Clinton proposed a “New Covenant” when many thought Democrats wouldn’t win the White House again in their lifetimes.


Dwight Eisenhower promised a desired change in Korea and Richard Nixon offered “peace with honor” when voters were weary of the Vietnam conflict.


Right now, opinion polls make it pretty clear that Americans are dissatisfied about something. The Gallup Poll reports that Americans are unhappy with the Republican president, and they’re not much happier with either Republicans or Democrats in Congress.


Perhaps because about a third of Americans approve of the president’s performance right now, the explicit call for change trips more easily off the tongues of Democrats who would like to replace him.


Obama, a Democratic senator from Illinois, has been talking about change for months, not-so-subtly emphasizing the idea that, because he is new to Washington, he has a fresh perspective more in touch with that of regular people. His low-dollar fundraising drive is called “Countdown to Change.”


Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and other Democratic candidates frequently use the word on the campaign trail, too. Richardson has new ads out that emphasize the “change and experience he represents,” and jokes that other candidates are just “borrowing” his phrase.


Clinton is fighting the implication that, as the former first lady and an important force in her husband’s administration, she represents the past rather than a dynamic future. (The “New Covenant” that Bill Clinton offered the American people was, in fact, “new” a full 15 years ago.)


After months of emphasizing her on-the-job training for the job of president, Clinton has added a new catchword to her lexicon. Lately, the Democratic senator from New York has been speaking to crowds under a campaign sign that reads “Change + Experience.”


Putting a fine point on it the other day, Clinton told a crowd in New Hampshire that “change is just a word without the strength and experience to make it happen.”


Republican Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts didn’t let much time pass before he offered his own take on the need for change.


“Hillary Clinton would bring change,” he said this week, “but it would be a sharp left turn.”


Certainly, Republicans have to be careful about how they use the word. Openly criticizing the current administration could alienate the people who still approve of Bush, and who are likely to make up a significant portion of those who vote in the Republican primary, political strategists say.


As a strong supporter of the president’s troop surge in Iraq, Sen. John McCain of Arizona is in little danger of seeming overly critical. Similarly, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani supports the president’s troop surge.


Still, strategists say that both represent their own implicit change for the GOP - McCain as the party’s mainstream maverick and Giuliani as its most socially liberal frontrunner in recent history.


Such candidates can certainly allude to the ideas of newness and difference with the old advertising trick of using subtler comparative words. Government should do a better job of enforcing border controls, for example.


Or, as Romney says, if the troop surge in Iraq is working, then service personnel should eventually drop back and play more of a support role.


Perhaps fortunately for Republicans, the politics of change arguably favor those who aren’t proposing too terribly much of it.


“This major money machine that you have to get cranked up to win an election - those contributors don’t really want a great deal of change,” said Steve Jarding, a veteran Democratic strategist and Harvard University lecturer. “Once a candidate steps outside the status quo, once he or she is stepping on toes, the money starts flowing to defeat them. No wonder we can’t effect change.”


Still, the season is open for candidates to contend for the right to at least own the labeling of change, just as the peddlers of products do.


“The label is what makes people consider the product in the first place,” said Seth Godin, a former marketing executive and best-selling author of several books on the marketing of ideas.


“It’s the label of Coke, the history of Coke, that makes you buy it,” Godin said. “It’s not the black stuff that’s in the can.”


But no matter what the label a candidate claims, Murphy said, it won’t work if it doesn’t ultimately ring true.


“This is a change election, and everyone will try to harness this,” Murphy said. “Voters will pick the one that makes the most sense.”

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