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Christine O'Donnell's ad and you

By Roy Peter Clark, Special to CNN
An ad from Christine O'Donnell, the Tea Party favorite running for Senate in Delaware, tries to relate to the viewer.
An ad from Christine O'Donnell, the Tea Party favorite running for Senate in Delaware, tries to relate to the viewer.
  • O'Donnell's ad designed to make you revise your impressions of her, says Roy Peter Clark
  • It's hard to imagine a shorter or more effective sentence than "I'm you," says Clark
  • He says group funding the ad is trying to reposition O'Donnell as a mainstream candidate
  • Clark says ad tries to make voters see O'Donnell as their reflection, but many will not

Editor's note: Roy Peter Clark contributes to on issues of politics and language. He is senior scholar at the Poynter Institute and the author of "Writing Tools" and "The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English."

(CNN) -- Perhaps it would be unwise to call a campaign ad "enchanting" or "spellbinding," especially one that begins with "I am not a witch."

That opening is neither an obvious allusion to the Salem witch trials nor to the "witch hunts" against communist sympathizers during the McCarthy era.

It's something much more modern -- or postmodern. It is an attempt by political advertisers to dilute the effects of contemporary satire directed at Christine O'Donnell, the Tea Party darling running for the U.S. Senate in Delaware.

Watch the O'Donnell "I'm You" ad

So far, coverage of O'Donnell has been dominated by her surprise primary victory over an established Republican candidate, attacks on her from the likes of Karl Rove, her identification with Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement, and, most sensationally, by revelations of her long-held religious opposition to evolution, masturbation, and her interest in witchcraft (something she says she dabbled in years ago).

Video: Christine O'Donnell: I've matured
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Video: 'The O'Donnell effect'

"I am not a witch," she says in the ad, "I'm not anything you've heard."

In a 30-second spot that has been praised for its effectiveness by the likes of film critic Roger Ebert, a well-lit O'Donnell stands against a dark background. Soothing music softens the message. An aura of blue light floats around her, half-liturgical and half screen-saver.

In most previous images of O'Donnell, she has appeared dressed in red before cheering crowds. Not here. She wears a black suit jacket and a simple but elegant string of pearls. If anything she resembles not Sarah Palin, but a younger Katie Couric without the sharp edges, the nice lady next door.

"I'm you," she says with an earnest smile.

That sentence, "I'm you," may be the shortest and most soulful in the history of American electioneering, sounding more like Martin Buber's existential "I and Thou" than Barack Obama's "Yes We Can."

The television spot, funded by a national conservative group and crafted by Republican ad expert Fred Davis, is designed to make you revise your impressions of O'Donnell. She is not a candidate on the fringe of the fringe, as she has at times been depicted, from both the right and left. She is someone in whom you, the voter, can see your reflection.

"None of us are perfect," she says, holding up the humility meme. "But none of us can be happy with what we see all around us: Politicians who think spending, trading favors and backroom deals are the ways to stay in office."

She is not a witch, but she has a broom. If you are trying to demonize those you want to sweep out of office, look to Washington, look to them, the career politicians. It's you and me, baby, against them.

"She is not a witch, but she has a broom."
--Roy Peter Clark

"I'll go to Washington," she says, "and do what you'd do. I'm Christine O'Donnell and I approve this message." Then, with a final uplift in her voice, she repeats the money phrase: "I'm you."

I agree with Roger Ebert, who declares on his website that "the ad is a superb technical exercise. ... 'I'm you' is a masterstroke. In other words, you, person viewing this ad, is better qualified than those of either party who have devoted their careers to public office."

I once heard author Tom Wolfe explain that if you want to make your audience believe you are speaking the truth, speak it in the shortest possible sentence.

In an era of bumper sticker politics, of slogans and sound bites, it's hard to imagine a shorter or more effective sentence than "I'm you," with its seven characters, five letters, and two words. Compared to it, "I like Ike" reads like "Moby Dick."

Of course, "I'm you" invites this easy retort from O'Donnell's opponents: "No, you are not me. You know nothing about me." But those detractors won't be singing in O'Donnell's choir anyway.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roy Peter Clark.