Any successful campaign strategy includes creating a positive public image for the candidate. Advertising the candidate's public policy positions is important, too, naturally. But in the age of sound bites, image often takes precedence in the minds of voters.

Take, for example, the presidential front-runners: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John McCain and Mitt Romney. Has image overcome reality in this race?

Democrats

I described the images the leading Democratic candidates are trying to present after their debate in Las Vegas last week: Clinton a hands-on CEO and Obama an inspirational leader.

Clinton's detractors have derided her experience. In particular, many question how her role as First Lady could prepare her for the presidency. Mitt Romney, for example, said in an ad: "And the idea that she Clinton could learn to be president as an internship just doesn't make any sense." In contrast, Clinton has said she has 35 years of experience. Who's right?

After serving as congressional council on the House Judiciary Committee overseeing the Watergate hearings, she followed up on her legal career as a lawyer and partner of the Rose Law firm in Arkansas -- a firm not known for having female or minority partners. She was also named twice by the National Law Journal as one of the Top 100 most influential attorneys in America.

Clinton served on three corporate boards, including Wal-Mart Stores ( WMT) (as the first female member), TCBY (seller of soft-serve frozen yogurt), and Lafarge ( LFRGY). Furthermore, she sat on the board of the Legal Services Corp. and the Arkansas Children's Hospital Legal Services. She chaired the Children's Defense Fund , a longtime advocate for children's issues.

Clinton cannot say she has been a CEO. But her past experience -- including eight years as an active First Lady and seven years as a New York senator -- demonstrates a vast knowledge of policy from both the private and public sector that would indicate sufficient experience to be president. In my opinion, she would not be "interning" on the job.

Obama has presented himself as an inspirational leader who can overcome the partisan divide. He has convinced one group: the fawning media. Yesterday, Gail Collins wrote in a New York Times column:
"Barack's candidacy is about the child of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya whose very lineage makes him the vehicle for a transcendent national unity."
The Kansas/Kenya unity theory is news to me.

But Obama has made change the major motif of his campaign, as have the other Democrats. He says his message of unity will bring the country together, unlike Clinton's or Edwards'. Obama says he can change the way Washington works by decreasing lobbyists' influence and reforming government to be more responsive to the people.

Obama's record on dealing with lobbyists is not as pristine as he'd like us to believe. Before his presidential run, he took money from both federal and state lobbyists for his Senate and state Senate campaigns. Recently he has had to change his stump speech. He used to say his campaign hasn't taken money from lobbyists; now he distinguishes between taking money from state lobbyists vs. federal lobbyists. Even worse, Obama denied that his New Hampshire campaign co-chairman, Jim Demers, was a lobbyist -- Demers lobbies for Pfizer ( PFE) and big pharma.

To his credit, Obama has been responsible for passing ethics legislation. He did this while an Illinois state senator, and his only piece of signature legislation in the Senate was an ethics bill.

Obama's positive message has certainly inspired, so much so that he has drawn parallels to figures like Ronald Reagan and Bobby Kennedy. In fact, he has received money from more individual donors than any other candidate in the race and has proved a tough rival for Clinton, who has a strong base in the Democratic Party.

According to pollster.com, recent opinion polls now show that only 24.2% of Americans believe the country is headed in the right direction. Clearly, the country is crying for a change in leadership. The question remains whether voters will be able to take a leap of faith for Obama.

Republicans

McCain and Mitt Romney lead the race for delegates on the Republican side, and image has played a big role in both campaigns. McCain has portrayed himself as a straight-talker who could be the Commander-in-Chief, while Romney has tried to channel Ronald Reagan, touting a strong and positive future for America. Both have tried to rewrite their past.

Overspent, struggling in the polls and facing massive staff layoffs, McCain's campaign bottomed out last summer. Yet McCain persevered.

He chose to retool his campaign's focus. Long before President Bush announced the "surge" in Iraq, McCain had called for additional troops to foster political reconciliation there. As the surge improved security there, McCain's message as a leader on foreign affairs and a strong Commander-in-Chief brought him back into contention. Recent polls now having him leading nationally.

McCain's military background clearly has helped him build this image. His father and grandfather were admirals, and he retired from the Navy a captain. He also was held for years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam -- a fact that his campaign has leaned on heavily. Moreover, McCain has been an outspoken opponent to torture following his personal experiences.

His strong stance on national defense has minimized problems with his domestic record. McCain's legislative record has been his bugaboo: He supported immigration reform, passed campaign finance legislation banning soft money from political action committees and opposed Bush's tax cuts.

McCain has since disavowed his opposition to Bush's tax cuts. He prefers to play up his fiscal hawkishness. He pleaded with conservatives in the most recent Republican debate, asking them to vote for him because he puts "party before country."

I can't question McCain's "presidential" image. But other factors could hurt him, particularly his weakness on economic matters, as I have suggested .

Romney has tried to offer himself as the second coming of Ronald Reagan. He has based his campaign on the "three legs" of conservatism: strong social values, a strong economy and a strong national defense. He hopes to keep together the coalition of voters who have brought the GOP many electoral victories since 1980.

Romney certainly has a strong economic record. In private life, he was the CEO of Bain Capital Management, where he built a very successful private-equity firm, and then saved the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics from ruin. He also served one-term as the governor of Massachusetts. Romney's record as governor has received favorable consideration from conservatives, in light of facing difficult opposition from liberal legislators there.

He has faced greater challenges on his stances on social issues. While he ran for office in the more liberal northeast, he favored pro-choice positions over anti-abortion positions. In 2005, he flip-flopped to align himself with conservatives after a vote on stem cells. This hurt him in New Hampshire as several newspapers wrote anti-endorsements questioning his character on the issue.

Furthermore, Romney has portrayed himself as a strong social conservative and a man of faith. Some evangelicals have expressed concern over his Mormon beliefs, but Romney remains unconcerned. Last night in the debate, he reiterated that Americans have faith -- and faith in the Constitution, which says there shall be no religious test for a secular office. Amen, I say.

Romney speaks most strongly when discussing a positive economic future for America. He made an amazing turnaround in Michigan. Trailing in the polls, he lashed out at McCain -- who had commented that the American automotive industry probably couldn't be revived -- with a positive and personal message of economic revival. It apparently worked. A day before the primary there, a Reuters/ C-Span/Zogby poll showed McCain leading by a paltry 27%-24%.

And Romney has to maintain the drumbeat of economic strength in his fight with McCain in order to win. Some might remember it served Reagan just as well in his victory over Jimmy Carter.

Image has occupied the media's attention in this race. While image is important, voters also deserve a better understanding of a candidates' past experience and their future policy proposals.