Big Man on Campaign
The first thing you notice about Joe Allbaugh is how much of him you notice. He stands 6 feet 4 inches, weighs 275 pounds and wears his hair in a brush. "It's a flat-top," he insists, "not a crew cut."
That is a rare display of vanity for the notoriously press-shy Allbaugh. At meetings of the National Governors' Association, he is sometimes mistaken for one of the ubiquitous security officers and seems to prefer it that way.
Until last month, Allbaugh was Bush's gubernatorial chief of staff. He is the behind-the-scenes man and the calming force between two strong-willed and powerful personalities in strategist Karl Rove and communications director Karen Hughes. His main role, he often jokes, was that of "the enforcer of the governor's will and the moderator of staff egos."
"Joe listens," Hughes says. "Both Karl and I talk a lot. Joe does not. He's quiet. But when he speaks, it's always well thought out. Joe's very fair and very balanced. He gets things done."
Allbaugh has prospered in part because he has a constituency of one Bush. "There isn't anything more important than protecting him and the first lady," he said. "I'm the heavy, in the literal sense of the word."
Still, it was not preordained that he would become Bush's campaign manager. Bush considered giving the job to former Iowa representative Tom Tauke. There are several versions of what happened: One is that Bush didn't want to force Tauke to give up a lucrative salary in Washington and move to Austin. Another is that Tauke worried that he could never fully control the campaign, particularly given Rove's power and long relationship with Bush. Still another is that Tauke proposed a top-down campaign structure that would have limited staff access to the candidate and with which Bush was not comfortable.
The outcome was a decision to make Allbaugh the campaign manager and leave Rove in the role of chief strategist.
Allbaugh is a nuts-and-bolts manager who enjoys saying no. "Joe is a really good bad cop," says Mark McKinnon, Bush's chief media adviser.
McKinnon recalls asking Allbaugh to inspect the new, Spartan offices the media team has established in Austin, which have no running water and the ambiance of a fallout shelter. "His response was, 'How much were those fancy chairs?' " McKinnon says.
As Bush's fund-raising team, led by Midland business executive Donald Evans, piled up a rec ord $36.3 million in contributions in the first half of the year, Allbaugh kept a tight lid on expenditures, deferring the hiring of staff and denying some requests for travel. Of late he has taken to walking around the campaign headquarters with a megaphone, admonishing the staff not to spend money.
"It's not what you raise, it's what you have in the bank," he explains. "So what if you raise it all if you don't have it when you need it. So yes, I'm pretty frugal."
Allbaugh, 46, was raised on a farm about 100 miles north of Oklahoma City. His family abruptly moved to town the day his mother found a rattlesnake in a dresser drawer. "She found it in the morning and we became city farmers overnight," he says. Despite his size he never played football beyond junior high school. "By the time I got to high school, not only was I burned out, I was severely hurt," he says.
He studied political science at Oklahoma State University, becoming the first male in his family to graduate from college, and thought about law school. Instead, he was bitten by the campaign bug and started to do volunteer work. "It was enjoyable and it kept me off the farm," he says.
His first campaign was an Oklahoma congressional race in 1968. He did a gubernatorial campaign in 1970, worked on a Senate campaign in 1972 and in 1974 got his first paid campaign job as a driver and aide-de-camp for Republican Henry Bellmon.
He worked on the political field staff in the Reagan-Bush campaign in 1984, but "was burned out of the traveling" by the time it ended and moved back to Oklahoma City. In 1986, he helped Bellmon win election as governor and spent 18 months in the governor's office, where he first met George W. Bush. "I was the Karl Rove of Bellmon's operation," he says.
Early in 1994 Allbaugh got a call from Bush, who had been referred to him by a mutual friend. Bush was concerned that his gubernatorial campaign was not operating smoothly, and he was looking for someone strong enough to make decisions stick. "Fortunately," Allbaugh says, "that's one of my strengths."
Allbaugh has been married twice. His current wife of almost 15 years, Diane, is an Austin lawyer. They have three children: one from his previous marriage, one from hers and one together. He likes to ski and go fly-fishing. But his planned Alaska vacation last month gave way to the responsibilities of launching the Bush campaign. He managed to grab a few days at Yellowstone National Park around the Fourth of July.
Allbaugh counts himself lucky to be where he is, knowing he has come a long way from the farm in Oklahoma. "This is the chance of a lifetime," he said. On Jan. 20, 2001, "George Bush will be inaugurated president of the United States and I'll have had a small role in it. It's almost unimaginable."
By Dan Balz, Washington Post Staff Writer
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