Gray, Fenty campaign styles may speak volumes to D.C. voters

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By Tim Craig and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Two months before the District's Democratic mayoral primary, incumbent Adrian M. Fenty and leading opponent Vincent C. Gray are running campaigns that mirror their leadership styles -- pitting a fast-paced, lean operation against a more deliberate campaign that has put the once-popular mayor on the defensive.

Which approach wins could be an indication of which leadership style voters prefer: that of the mayor, who says he has to make quick, sometimes unpopular decisions to get things done, or that of the D.C. Council chairman, who is more likely to consult constituencies before taking major actions.

And as they gear up for the final sprint to the Sept. 14 primary, the two candidates are relying on different ways to mobilize supporters and win over voters, according to interviews with senior campaign staff members.

Fenty has been relentless at street intersections and Metro stations in the morning and at doorsteps in the evening -- the same tactics that catapulted him from council member to mayor in 2006. He has launched a TV ad campaign in which he does not appear but that includes personal testimonials to counter three persistent complaints: He is arrogant;he does not care about communities east of the Anacostia River; and he has not done enough to nurture small businesses.

As for Gray, he has taken advantage of Fenty's increasing reluctance to appear at candidate forums, where the challenger has wooed voters by engaging them in policy discussions. But Gray's advisers fret that he has not matched Fenty's enthusiasm for knocking on doors as he tries to raise his profile and present a message that goes beyond being an anti-Fenty candidate.

"Vince spends a lot of time reading the research and the data, whereas with Fenty, he was out campaigning," said Neil Richardson, Gray's policy director, who worked on Fenty's 2006 campaign. "From a field perspective, and ideally, it would be great to have Vince out there six hours a day knocking on doors."

Within the Fenty campaign, advisers said their focus groups show that the lack of a communications strategy has fed the perception of arrogance and disarray. "There is an acknowledgment we can do better," said Sean Madigan, who recently took a leave of absence as an administration spokesman to help the campaign.

Gray and Fenty are trying to court voters like Michelle Morris, 76, of the city's Chevy Chase neighborhood. In a Washington Post poll in January, which showed Gray and Fenty locked in a close race, Morris indicated that she was undecided. Reached by phone last week, Morris said she was still on the fence.

Fenty has "done some good things," Morris said, but he is "too detached and imperious" and comes across as "a bit of a phony." Although she respects Gray as council chairman, Morris said, she can not envision him as an executive because she fears that he is afraid to "take great stands."

"Gray may turn out to be someone to look at more seriously, but he's just kind of blah," Morris said.

Fenty

Fenty has surrounded himself with a small group of loyal advisers, relying on the playbook for 2006, when he won every precinct in the city. But this year, Fenty is also benefiting from a 10-1 advantage in campaign donations in the competition with Gray, and his deep pockets allow him to air commercials and hire canvassers far earlier than he did four years ago. His message has been that he deserves a second term because student tests scores have made gains, long-sought improvements to school facilities and recreation centers have been completed, homicides are down and the city's population is growing.

Fenty advisers say that Gray lacks the same record of accomplishment.


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