Gingrich Orchestrated GOP Ads Recalling Clinton-Lewinsky Affair
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 30, 1998; Page A1
The GOP's multimillion dollar ad campaign invoking President Clinton's relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky was devised by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and tested before more than three dozen groups of likely voters before Republicans unleashed the assault, party sources said yesterday.
In reviving the presidential sex scandal just one week before Election Day, Gingrich and his chief strategists aimed to energize their most loyal supporters, whose enthusiasm appeared to be waning after House conservatives lost the budget fight and the Clinton scandal fell off the front pages.
At the same time, the GOP ad-makers tried to calibrate the commercials so as not to infuriate Democratic and swing voters.
"We tested and tested and honed and honed until we got to the point we felt our base understood the message we were trying to get to them," said Rich Galen, an informal adviser to Gingrich. "But this is not a baseball bat that allows Democrats to go out and say we need to stop these guys" at the polls.
But Democratic leaders -- and even some Republicans speaking privately -- say the last-minute ad gamble and media stir it has caused may well backfire.
"Our polling shows this increases Democratic intensity," said White House political director Craig Smith.
In April, Gingrich told supporters, "I will never again, as long as I am speaker, make a speech without commenting on this topic," referring to the presidential scandal. But as polls indicated a backlash, he abandoned that plan. And since Congress adjourned last week, Gingrich has campaigned for GOP candidates across the country, refusing to utter one word about the Clinton controversy.
Now Republican officials are "caught in a cauldron," said one GOP consultant, noting the party had hoped the harshest anti-Clinton ads would slip under the national news media's radar and only reach conservative voters in the South. "They never intended for this to be an 8 on the Richter scale."
In what is expected to be a low-turnout Election Day, both sides attempted yesterday to use the ad controversy to stir up their core supporters.
On a black radio station in Baltimore, several outraged callers urged African Americans to vote Republicans out of office to halt the attacks on Clinton. The Democratic National Committee, meanwhile, released a new spot accusing Republicans of wasting "millions of our tax dollars on endless investigations."
On the other side, amid reports the GOP was thinking of pulling the ads, conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh urged listeners to call the National Republican Congressional Committee and complain. One unlucky staffer there received angry messages on a pager such as: "Don't pull the ads, you wimp."
In television interviews Wednesday, Rep. John Linder (Ga.), head of the NRCC and a close ally of Gingrich, said the scandal-related commercials were a last-minute decision that "we couldn't pretend Clinton didn't exist."
Yet according to GOP congressional aides, the planning for the ads began in earnest about a month ago at a House leadership meeting. At the session in Gingrich's office, Linder said anger over Clinton was the best way to excite conservative voters and win some of the uphill House races. "Nothing else is going to put those second-tier guys over the top except making Clinton the issue," one aide said describing the conversation.
In subsequent weeks, Gingrich's pollster, Linda DiVall began conducting focus groups to test themes. Galen and Rich Gaylord, two of the speaker's most trusted advisers, helped develop the spots. Up until the final edit, Gingrich was kept apprised and suggested adjustments in the commercials, one adviser said.
While the first news accounts suggested a $10 million advertising assault on Clinton, the money is financing 29 locally tailored issue ads, along with the three Lewinsky-related spots. The purchase for the scandal ads is relatively modest, limited to 30 House districts and for only the few days before Tuesday's election.
The harshest attack ad, which hits Clinton for not telling the truth, is running in just three southern districts and is viewed as a bone to disenchanted conservatives there. A second spot, in which two mothers discuss "What did you tell your kids," is being shown in moderate suburban areas such as Santa Barbara, Calif., and parts of New Jersey. The final commercial, which uses the infamous video clip of Clinton wagging his finger as he denied the Lewinsky affair, is airing in places such as Utah, Idaho and Cincinnati, where Clinton is very unpopular.
Republican skeptics argue if the goal was to motivate core GOP voters, the party should have used direct mail and telephone banks to spread the anti-Clinton theme. But one nervous Republican who spent yesterday at NRCC headquarters said officials there were looking for a more potent way to remind certain voters why they are disgusted with Clinton. "There's only so much you can do in phones and mail to get the emotions churning," this source said. "That picture of Clinton wagging his finger is very difficult to reproduce in the mail or over the phone."
Yet the NRCC went to considerable lengths to keep the ad campaign under wraps. On Tuesday, Linder told reporters that Lewinsky would not be a significant factor in the midterm elections. For GOP candidates to attack Clinton over the scandal, he said, "could be overkill."
Hours later, the first of three commercials exploiting the Lewinsky investigation hit the airwaves.
"We make it a practice not to signal to the opposition what we're doing a week before the election," said NRCC spokeswoman Mary Crawford.
From the minute the word leaked out Tuesday evening, the spots were launched by the booster rocket of news coverage, or what politicians call "free media." They were played on ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN and dominated the cable talk shows. They were pictured on the front page of yesterday's New York Times. "Scandal ads hit campaign," said the banner headline in USA Today. The ads drew responses from Clinton and Vice President Gore.
GOP media adviser Greg Stevens said he understood the need to "gin up the vote in certain districts." But while it is easy to second-guess, he said: "That free media coverage probably hurt us in a lot of places. There are some suburban swing voters who potentially could react badly to that. Whoever leaked it, they blew it. It doesn't make sense for the rest of the country to be reading about it."
In an NBC-Wall Street poll yesterday, 68 percent of those surveyed said they disapproved of the way Congress is handling the impeachment issue. Democratic consultant Peter Fenn said Republicans "are trying to ignite their base. But there is substantial backlash potential: There the Republicans go again talking about scandal, not substance."
The story was broken Tuesday night by the Associated Press and confirmed by The Washington Post, New York Times and New York Post. But the NRCC's Crawford said the resulting deluge of coverage has sent the wrong message.
"There's a huge problem with the way the press is looking at these ads," Crawford said. While they may "acknowledge" or "address" Lewinsky, she said, "these ads are not about Monicagate. They are about something a lot bigger than the president."
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company