The Selling of the … Bumper Sticker

With the primary season right around the corner, I’ve been feeling a certain amount of pressure to pick my candidate. And since all the front-runners seem so darn moderate and appealing, I decided I’d choose the same way I did back in sixth grade: I’d visit everybody’s headquarters and see who was giving away the best free buttons and bumper stickers.

But when I arrived at my first stop-the Garment District address I had for the Al Gore campaign headquarters-I couldn’t find the bustling storefront framed in patriotic bunting I was looking for. Instead, a porter directed me to the fifth floor, where I discovered the campaign hiding behind an unmarked door.

My knock was answered by a well-scrubbed, no nonsense blond. “We’re not fully operational yet,” she said, blocking my way.

With a smile, I asked if she had any free buttons. She eyed me suspiciously-as if I was the sort of predator she’d been warned lurks in the stairwells of Manhattan office buildings where campaigns who squandered all their money on high-priced consultants are forced to slum it.

“No,” she stated forcefully.

“Do they exist within the campaign?” I asked, perhaps a bit tartly. This wasn’t the reception I’d been expecting. Back in ’64, I was able to paper my entire bedroom closet in free “All the Way With L.B.J.” bumper stickers.

“Of course they do,” she sniffed before closing the door on me.

I telephoned the Vice President’s national campaign headquarters the next day. That’s when I stumbled upon perhaps the most revolutionary development in Presidential image building since the sun lamp-the on-line campaign store. “You need to call Goregear.com,” stated the woman who answered the phone.

Goregear.com is a visual feast. Its home page features Al and Tipper sitting under a tree looking like a couple of L.L. Bean models. And it sells everything from balloons and Gore 2000 mouse pads to gold-plated money clips, as well as the obligatory T-shirts and bumper stickers.

“Don’t be fooled by cheap imitations,” the site warns.

Unfortunately, it also seems plagued by some of the missteps that have characterized the Gore campaign thus far. For example, whoever came up with the idea of square Gore buttons ought to be fired and, come to think of it, probably already has been.

As attractive as much of the merchandise was-I was particularly smitten with the union-made, gold-plated Gore 2000 tie slide-I decided to put off purchasing until I visited the Bill Bradley store. Sadly, I couldn’t find one-even though the campaign’s official Web site features a handsome button of the candidate looking uncharacteristically freshly pressed and sporting only one chin.

I placed a call to Eric Hauser-he’s the Bradley campaign spokesman-to find out whether the absence of an on-line store was some sort of tactical decision to draw a distinction between his boss and Mr. Gore. Was the Bradley campaign trying to suggest that you’ll never find Mr . Bradley standing outside a Buddhist temple, cup-or, rather, 17-ounce stadium mug retailing for $1.00 at Goregear.com-in hand?

As I waited for Mr. Hauser to return my call, I surfed over to Georgebushstore.com., the Nordstrom of campaign on-line stores. No other candidate, to the best of my knowledge, sells embossed golf balls, offers a free bumper sticker with every purchase or boasts its own brand of mineral water.

“We’ve become so brand conscious as a society,” observed Ted Jackson, the Republican operative who runs the George W. Bush store.

Mr. Jackson volunteered that Bush fans are spending $75 and, in some cases, hundreds of dollars on a typical visit to Georgebushstore.com.

“We’ve got new stuff,” he added. “We’ve expanded our wearable line. There’s a real nice metal thermos. About 10 more things. “

The businessman admitted that while he stands to make some money on the site and, come to think of it, might even be on the short list for Commerce Secretary in a Bush Administration, the Bush brand could conceivably become worthless if, say, those rumored table-dancing photos of the Governor eventually surface.

“Certainly it’s not a business without risk,” Mr. Jackson observed. “If something happened to this candidacy-if, God forbid, there was an accident-printed material sitting on a shelf isn’t worth less, it’s worth zero.”

It took about a month for the Bradley and Gore campaigns to return my calls, but they did so simultaneously-in the person of Steve Schwat. Mr. Schwat explained that his company runs both candidates’ on-line stores, though he’d prefer not to make a big deal of it.

“The campaigns don’t like one person working on two campaigns,” he explained, adding that he oversees the Gore store while a colleague runs the Bradley boutique.

Turns out the reason I couldn’t find the Bradley store is because it only recently came on line. “The Bradley site has received an incredible amount of traffic, over 100,000 hits the first week,” Mr. Schwat boasted. “We booked over 2,000 orders in the first two weeks.”

By comparison, Goregear.com sometimes chalks up as few as two or three orders a day. However, Mr. Schwat attributes that less to the Vice President’s lack of charisma than to the fact that the Gore site has been around a while and also because the Gore campaign, perhaps feeling squeamish about being in the apparel business, “chose to bury the links to the merchandise.”

It also seemed to me that the Bradley campaign was squandering a golden opportunity by marketing only the basics at its Web site-caps, buttons, T-shirts. Think of it. Is there anyone in the history of the making of the Presidency better positioned to make the leap from politician to action figure than the former Knicks star?

Mr. Schwat politely informed me that mine was not an original idea. “People have suggested Bill Bradley dolls that have the bobbing heads,” he reported. “Everybody has an opinion.”

I mentioned that I’d visited Gopshoppe.com, the “Republican Superstore” where I saw for sale “I’m moving to New York to vote against Hillary” buttons, and wondered whether he had anything similar up his sleeve referring, say, to, John McCain’s temper or Mr. Bush’s frat days.

“You’ll never see anything on my site that sends a negative message,” he vowed and launched into a story about the California woman who sent him a prototype Bob Dole toilet brush and plunger in the heat of the 1996 Presidential campaign when Mr. Schwat managed the Clinton-Gore on-line store.

“The brush was called ‘Bob’s Brush,'” he recalled. “It was painted red, white and blue. She’d glued streamers to it. And it smelled.”

The Selling of the … Bumper Sticker