An age old question
We are the party of substance. That's the message Ming Campbell wants to go out from Brighton today. It's a message that's supposed to work on many levels.
To his activists he's saying, "we are not a party of symbolism".
Translation - Charles Kennedy was all symbols and no gong. Let's consign populist gestures and woolly thinking to the past along with him.
To the country he's saying, "we are not a party of spin".
Translation - I may not be as photogenic as David Cameron but at least you know what I think.
To the media he's saying, "political debate in this country is in danger of losing sight of what matters".
Translation - do stop going on about how old I am.
Before you shout "hear hear" just dwell for a moment on the fact that his speech is to be preceded by a slide show (they couldn't afford a video) showing Ming the world-class athlete, Ming the fighter pilot (actually, he was only a passenger in the jet in the photo) and Ming the campaigner alongside Nelson Mandela.
Ming began the week, you may recall, with a photo opportunity with "Campbell's crackers" (er, women MPs to you and me). Later he declared that he knew the Arctic Monkeys had sold more records than the Beatles (which they haven't).
The Lib Dems are in danger of looking just a little too anxious about their new leader's image. They winced at a vicious cartoon in The Guardian of Ming in a wheelchair wrapped in a car rug declaring, "go back to your constituencies and prepare for death". They fear that all anyone knows about him is his age.
They want, quite understandably, people to know that their man started life in a Glasgow tenement and made a success in sport and the law before turning to politics. They know that they've traded a well-known and well-liked leader for one many can't even name.
Perhaps though they should heed their leader's speech. Ming's predecessors won the public's attention by taking stands on issues of substance. Ashdown did it on the plight of Hong Kong Chinese and Bosnia. The fact that he had been in the SBS counted, I suspect, for little. Kennedy did it on Iraq. The fact that he started life in a Highland croft scarcely mattered.
Voters do want to know about the lives and the backgrounds of their leaders. We, in the media, have a voracious appetite for it but Campbell is right - he'll be judged by substance not stills of his past life.
PS: They've just played that slide show and the conference laughed at the "Top Gun" image of Ming the fighter (pilot) passenger.