Season of the Surrogate: For candidates’ backers, a chance to help — or harm


Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), left, with GOP nominee Mitt Romney and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, is considered an ideal surrogate. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Talk. Talk. More talk.

It is the imperative of the presidential campaign, a tsunami of words meant to coax and cajole, rile and rouse. But the candidates can’t say it all. Not when Wolf needs someone at 6 and Schieffer’s producer is on the horn and “The O’Reilly Factor” absolutely, positively wants to book a segment and the Chamber needs a breakfast speaker and . . . and . . . and . . .

And so we enter the Season of the Surrogate, a once-every-four-years occurrence fraught with off-message meandering and narrative-undercutting peril, not to mention the promise of on-message boostering and narrative enhancement. Unleashed, countless surrogates marshaled by the D’s and the R’s expound on everything from debt reduction to partisan dysfunction, from social ills to oil spills.

The surrogate is a unique political creature, a channeler of someone else’s ambitions, someone else’s predilections and dreams; a force capable of reaching voters intellectually, emotionally or both. Ideally, the surrogate can be tamed — handed a sheaf of talking points to be eloquently and efficiently delivered. But the surrogate can be a wild thing, too — an unpredictable and dangerous beast, a “necessary evil,” as Phil Singer, a senior adviser to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, puts it. With so many outlets clamoring for interviews, choosing the right surrogates has become “one of the real arts of politics today,” says Singer, who now runs Marathon Strategies, a communications firm with offices in New York and Washington.

Witness the Democrats wincing in the run-up to last week’s convention in Charlotte, when Obama surrogate and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley pulled off a mega-oops, fumbling that most elementary of questions from CBS’s Bob Schieffer: Is the country better off than it was four years ago? O’Malley’s response (“No”) as well as hesitant replies to the same question by other advocates for President Obama almost made things too easy for their Republican counterparts — no degree of difficulty there. The power of the surrogate affirmed. In this case, the power to create headaches for the campaign.

Republicans have had their misadventures with surrogates this cycle, too. Remember John Sununu, the notably unexpurgated former New Hampshire governor, saying he wishes Obama would “learn how to be an American”? The comment set off a furtive round of apologizing that distracted from the Romney campaign’s efforts to focus attention on jobs and the economy.

The campaigns and their national party committees keep long lists of surrogates, stamping everyone from popular governors and big-name activists to local elected officials with their imprimaturs. The Romney campaign, for instance, has at its fingertips a roster of 20 to 30 go-to national surrogates on the economy. The Republican National Committee keeps a list with hundreds of names placed strategically throughout the country in coordination with the Romney campaign. “The more people spreading our message the better,” says Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for the RNC. Organizational superstructures are built exclusively to recruit them, wrangle them, schedule them and prep them. “We cast a wide net and do outreach to potential surrogates based on word of mouth, but also take suggestions,” Kukowski said.

But, for all the efforts to bring order to the universe of surrogacy, there are factors beyond the control of even the most organized campaigns. Television and radio producers have the personal cellphone numbers and e-mail addresses of so many familiar yakkers, and sometimes a prominent Democrat or Republican might appear to be a surrogate even though they really aren’t. These are the pesky Surrogate Poseurs, a species of pol that gives surrogate wranglers anxiety attacks by presenting themselves as official envoys of the campaigns when their actual contact is limited, perhaps no more than being on the receiving end of a blast e-mail.

Knowing the rules

Those who want to stay in the surrogate game — with the rare exception of the star who can do whatever he or she pleases — learn there are inviolable do’s and don’ts.

“One of the biggest don’ts is, if you don’t know something, don’t talk about it,” says Ken Blackwell, a Romney surrogate and former Cincinnati mayor, Ohio secretary of state and U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Commission

Blackwell chatted while driving to a Romney rally on a day when he also was scheduled to appear on Neil Cavuto’s Fox News program. He can see the questions coming before they’re asked. “I’m sure Cavuto is going to ask me about Ohio as a battleground state,” he said. Blackwell was intent on making sure he also steered the conversation to what his contacts in Romney’s campaign told him would be the theme of the day: “The economy.”

Among sanctioned surrogates, there are unspoken hierarchies. There are surrogates who go on television, and then there are surrogates that television goes to — the stars whose very presence will attract media attention, such as Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio (R), once a rumored vice-presidential pick, whose stumping in Nevada for Romney drew headlines. “An important part of the surrogate operation are people who can draw crowds, people like Jeb Bush and Chris Christie,” said Steve Schmidt, who managed the 2008 presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Just a notch below the crowd-pleasers are the A-list television talkers, who get daily massaging, face time with senior campaign officials and copious briefings. During the conventions, the stars and the not-so-starified come together for what amounts to a surrogate wonderland, a sea of cameras and microphones just waiting for them. The hottest names simply walk up and down media alleys, such as the conventions’ “radio row,” miking up for one interview, unstrapping, then miking up for the next. Beyond the hubbub of the conventions, there is a daily downpour of invitations from groups large and small that want the candidate to stop by an event to say a few words. Finding the right surrogate for each event is a practice that one surrogate handler described as “matchmaking.”

In the purest sense, surrogates are helping elect someone who shares their principles. But there’s also the hope, for some, that they’ll catch a bit of the reflected glamour and star power of the candidate and the campaign. Since most surrogates aren’t paid (the exception being salaried staffers who do surrogate appearances), the prestige and exposure that comes with speaking on behalf of the candidate can justify the time they spend in television makeup rooms and radio station lobbies and at windy banquets.

‘We need all of you’

Those who aren’t already in the mix can be drawn into the fraternity and sorority of surrogates, often with the aim of turning grass-roots activists with strong local ties into potent surrogates at smaller gatherings in their home towns. In Charlotte, at a get-together of hundreds of Latino Democrats on the first day of the Democratic National Convention, leaders urged delegates to reach out to Spanish-language publications for the campaign. “We need all of you to be surrogates!” one of the speakers declared. Others urged delegates in the audience to stick around after the presentation for surrogate training. And they did. Once the speakers stopped, a line of would-be surrogates formed.

A known quantity such as the conservative activist Bay Buchanan doesn’t need any training. Buchanan, who has spent a lifetime arguing for candidates and causes, might do three or four radio interviews and two television appearances in a day.

Once Buchanan got to Tampa for the Republican National Convention, she was ushered into a sit-down with top Romney aides along with about four dozen other surrogates. Here, the list was expanding. She saw one unknown face and said to herself, “Who are you?” Someone told her the man was a lieutenant governor from a Western state, surely drawn into the circle to ensure high-energy, well-informed surrogacy in some key battleground contest. “I thought, ‘That’s smart,’ ” Buchanan said.

On their good days, surrogates grind the candidate’s message into the public consciousness. Think Romney surrogates Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, and Rob Portman, the Ohio senator, pounding Obama over his “you didn’t build that” comment. Or there was Obama surrogate Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago mayor and former Obama chief of staff, needling Romney for not releasing more tax returns.

During campaigns, the surrogates are immersed in what amounts to a major league spin circuit, convening and re-convening in green rooms and satellite studios across the country. For the pros, there’s a kind of understanding: war when the cameras roll, peace when they stop.

“These are my friends. I respect them,” says Buchanan, who mentioned Paul Begala, James Carville and Donna Brazile as some of her most frequent and most challenging combatants. “I recognize them to be formidable opponents.”

Making talking points sound like, well, something other than canned talking points is their art form. “I have seen hostages look more natural than some of these surrogates reciting talking points,” says Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic National Committee member and a prominent commentator on network and cable news shows. “Everyone in both parties gets talking points several times a day, and you have to be drugged to repeat these lines with a straight face.”

Going off message

The bigger the name, the harder to control, campaign operatives say. Take Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive and onetime McCain surrogate, who in 2008 famously declared that neither McCain nor his running mate, Sarah Palin, would be capable of running a corporation.

When Singer was working on Hillary Clinton’s campaign, Saturday nights were reserved for briefing surrogates who would appear on the next morning’s Sunday talk shows. He remembers a particular surrogate — he’d tactfully rather not say which one — who invariably said the “exact opposite” of what the campaign wanted him to say. Still, the surrogate was such a marquee name that there was no cutting him loose — just a continuous loop of “Please, don’t do that agains.”

If there was an award for surrogate longevity, Blackwell would be a leading contender. He’s been doing the surrogate thing since Ed Rollins called to ask him to say a few words on behalf of Ronald Reagan back in 1984, and he says he’s served as a surrogate for every Republican presidential nominee since. Blackwell, who is African American, began as a “niche” surrogate, targeting black voters in his home state of Ohio, before evolving into an all-purpose commentator.

Like the politicians they help, these long-lasting surrogates know that it’s all about staying on message. “I want to make three points, no matter what the questions are,” Buchanan says.

Buchanan had stopped to chat as she walked through the Republicans’ Tampa convention hall. Her phone and e-mail inboxes had been blowing up all day. She’d lost track of everything Romney’s people wanted her to do. There was Geraldo Rivera’s radio show and something on CNN and more.

It’s just the way she likes it. She adheres to the surrogate’s version of “bring it on” — that would be “book it.”

Jason Horowitz in Washington and Peter Wallsten in Charlotte contributed to this report.

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.
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