Republicans in Tights: Behind the Scenes of the 'Superhero Primary'

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What a nine-year-old boy's quest to learn the favorite superheroes of the GOP presidential candidates tells us about the field.

                    

MANCHESTER -- Newt Gingrich taught me the harsh political truth about my nine-year-old son: He's an unrepentant flip-flopper.

With some logistical support and media training from his dad, Ari Garnick pinned down most of the major Republican presidential candidates over the past few months with a 30-second personality test: "If you could be any superhero in the world, who would you be and why?"

These conversations with the candidates, shared in our Superhero Primary video above, capture the charm of the New Hampshire Primary, which allows any kid to have access to the potential next Leader of the Free World.

Holding court in a hotel restaurant appropriately named "Speaker's Corner," former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich told Ari that his favorite comic book character was Superman -- and then immediately sought to engage him by turning the question around, asking my son, "Who's your favorite superhero?"

As Ari pontificated about the merits of Martian Manhunter, an obscure extraterrestrial member of the Justice League of America, I struggled to keep my smirk from exploding into laughter. Gingrich, who's often labeled as gruff or condescending by his critics, was pretending that this Martian conversation was important -- for a few seconds, anyway. Then it became clear that he was desperate to get a question about Vladimir Putin or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as he spun his head around in search of someone who had reached voting age.

Ari and I left the hotel unsatisfied because we had received a one-word answer, but it was an invaluable teaching moment about journalism and documentaries. "Daddy," he said, "What are we going to do now? We can't go back and ask the question again. Because then it wouldn't be real."

From that moment on, my fourth grader learned not to walk away from an interview without at least two follow-up "why" questions.

The universes of superheroes and politics often collide. President Obama once posed as Superman on the campaign trail when he was a U.S. Senator, and also was the featured star of a Spider-Man comic. Last month, The New York Times Magazine branded Mitt Romney as "All-Business Man, the world's most boring superhero."

And I've used a classic 1966 Batman episode -- in which Batman (Adam West) runs for Gotham City Mayor against the Penguin (Burgess Meredith) -- to teach Ari about the absurdities of political polls and negative attack ads. Batman is a clean-cut Romney-esque policy wonk pitted against the more colorful Penguin, who delights crowds with dancing girls and marching bands.

Speaking of the Caped Crusader, he's the favorite hero of former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, a jovial "law and order" guy who Ari also met just as he decided not to enter the presidential race. Most candidates featured in our video gave us the same unimaginative answer: Superman. But just like those philosophical job interview questions ("What kind of tree would you be?"), their answers are irrelevant.

What's truly revealing about the candidates is how they interact with a child who has no ideological reason to prejudge them and how easily they handle a softball question they should be able to spin for maximum political impact.

Before his womanizing and harassment scandals broke and he started freaking out over being videotaped, Herman Cain seemed genuinely entertained as he mused about solving America's "super mess." Cain was animated as he listened to my son talk about his new favorite hero, Batman (which you'll note is a different answer than Ari gave to Gingrich).

Rick Perry turned his brief time with Ari into a flattering "Meet the Press" moment. No media was eavesdropping on Rick Santorum when we caught up with him at a Greek church festival, but he wove "The Incredibles" narrative seamlessly into his family values campaign.

The only fumble: The charmless Ron Paul, who said "I don't know" and impatiently turned away as a few supporters blurted out "Superman" to coach him on how to handle the baffling query. Before the New Hampshire Primary is over, perhaps Ari can be more engaging with Paul by chatting about auditing the Federal Reserve and returning U.S. currency to the gold standard.

After that, I'm looking forward to completing our heroic father-son journey by tracking down Michele Bachmann, who so far has been treating New Hampshire like Kryptonite as she focuses exclusively on winning the Iowa Caucuses. Anyone out there have access to an Invisible Jet to fly us to Des Moines?

Video credit: Darren Garnick

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Darren Garnick is an Emmy-nominated documentary producer and journalist based in New Hampshire. He is currently writing  Why Can't I Be President?, a comic book about history's "Oval Office Underdogs," and blogs about politics and pop culture at CultureSchlock.com.

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