Mudslingers Send Political Message; Behind the Speeches, Photo Ops and Pointed Personal Attacks Are Cagey Chieftains of Communication Working to Shape the Image of George W. Bush and John Kerry

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Byline: John M. Powers, INSIGHT

Conventional wisdom has it that the presidential election will be close, hard fought and dirty. The world seems to have gone a little mad. Civility and good manners have been under attack since the filthy-speech movement at Berkeley in the sixties, and the nation's aging baby boomers seem especially cranky. The economy jumps up and down, gasoline for the family Hummer is too expensive, and every day Americans are hit with the harsh reality of a U.S. soldier being killed out near Babylon. In times like these, with issues like these, the candidates and their surrogates already seem to be debating at the top of their lungs.

The Bush and Kerry teams have been posturing for months like television wrestlers anticipating a contest in a steel cage. To the untrained eye it may look like little more than a tangle of staged photo ops, electronic mudslinging, sporadic press releases and repetitious speeches, but it's all part of a big message that candidates want to convey to the public. And behind it all are cagey ministers of information manipulating the language and staging the drama. These chieftains of communication, say political insiders, will play the most crucial role in the upcoming presidential election. They will be the ones who spin the facts, discredit the opponent and shape the image of their candidate.

"For the Bush campaign, Karl Rove is the political manager of everything under the sun. Rove is going to be the guy who e pulls messages together and decides strategy," says Michael A. Genovese, chairman of leadership studies and director of the Institute for Leadership Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and author of more than a dozen books on politics and the presidency. But Genovese says the Kerry camp still is trying to find a Rove-like overlord for its message. Kerry has just hired Zach Exley, formerly a Move On.org strategist, to run his Internet operations. But don't jump the gun, he warns, "It's still hard to tell whether he [Exley] gets the ear of the candidate."

Exley has been a firebrand electronic activist since the 2000 election, when he set up a Website called gwbush.com, where he insisted George W. Bush was a cocaine addict. The site is still in operation and sells bumper stickers such as "GWBush: How Dumb Is Too Dumb?" and "Bush Is a Punk Ass Chump" and "Hail to the Thief," the title of the most recent rock album by Radiohead, though the band has said the phrase has nothing to do with Bush. Exley's connection to MoveOn.org has outraged Bush supporters, who claim it is yet more evidence of illegal collusion between the "soft-money"-supported anti-Bush Website and the Democratic presidential campaign. (For more on MoveOn.org see the cover story beginning on p. 18.)

Another top figure in the Kerry campaign will be John Sasso, named by the Massachusetts senator as general election manager at the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Sasso helped manage the Michael Dukakis presidential campaign of 1988, from which he was fired during the primaries after it was reported that it was he who had secretly released a video of Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) plagiarizing from speeches by then British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. According to Genovese, that sort of dirty trick is not likely to hurt Sasso, since he is "a real savvy, experienced political player." As Genovese sees it, "This is not a game for amateurs at this level."

Not surprisingly, that is also the way the DNC sees it. Jano Cabrera, its national spokesperson, tells Insight that Sasso is "a serious political player, and having a significant player like Sasso e speaks to how much of an investment they're [the Kerry campaign] making."

Genovese says Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill is reported to be emerging as the principal leader but it is still too early to tell. The campaign overlord will be determined by "trial and error," says Genovese. …