Magazine article Insight on the News

Quarterbacking the Counterspin

Magazine article Insight on the News

Quarterbacking the Counterspin

Article excerpt

The Clinton/Gore campaign and the Democratic National Committee quarterbacked a counterspin offensive at the Republican Convention. The GOP then responded with a run at the Democratic line in Chicago.

Republican delegates stopped dead in their tracks and did a double take when they spotted him strolling audaciously through the lobby of San Diego's Hyatt Regency Hotel. One Associated Press reporter rushed up with tape recorder in hand and fired off questions before realizing she had been had.

Gullible they may have been, but anyone who mistook impersonator Tim Watters for President Clinton on the opening day of the Republican National Convention shouldn't be too hard on themselves -- Watters has Clinton's manner and Arkansas twang down pat. And, anyway, San Diego was full of genuine party-crashing Democrats, such as Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and White House senior adviser George Stephanopoulos.

Eighteen staffers from the Clinton/Gore campaign and the Democratic National Committee, or DNC, turned up in "America's Finest City" and mounted a coordinated counterspin operation the likes of which have not been seen before at a party convention. They set up their temporary "war room" a convenient few blocks from the convention hall and, equipped with a sophisticated fax machine programmed to transmit 200 messages at once, blitzed the 15,000 credentialed journalists in a bid to slow the GOP's spin and replace it with their own.

That wasn't the way Dodd, chairman of the DNC, saw it. "We are a daily reality check," he claimed. "The Republicans are telling their story, but we're setting the record straight."

Day after day Dodd and his team--which included Ann Lewis, deputy manager of the Clinton/Gore campaign and sister of Democratic Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, and 1992 Clinton strategist James Carville -- pushed their counter-message across, using local radio and TV stations to make their point. Props also were employed: A billboard-carrying truck with a picture of an unemployment line and the tag, "People will line up behind the Dole-Gingrich economic plan," and an airplane which flew over San Diego trailing a banner reading, "Newt is still the quarterback."

The Democrats' constant fax operation put their spin on convention coverage at every turn. But their message basically stayed the same. According to Dodd, Dole's running mate Jack Kemp is a "darling of the extreme right" and the GOP convention's "moderate face" was a "huge con job." The Democrats also accentuated the differences between Dole and Kemp. "Dole is running for a job he's not suited for, on a platform he doesn't believe in, with a running mate he doesn't like," said Clinton insider Dick Morris.

A week before the convention started the White House had served notice that it intended to mount this aggressive counterspin operation. Following the quick-response tactics Clinton handlers developed during the 1992 presidential campaign, the president's aides were well-prepared for Dole's tax-cuts speech in Chicago. White House official Joe Lockhart was flown to the Windy City to brief reporters accompanying the Republican candidate and there, minutes after Dole outlined the centerpiece of his Reaganite economic policy, the script of a Clinton commercial prepared in advance of the Dole speech was unveiled. …

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