NAME: Lee Atwater. AGE: 35. OCCUPATION: Political consultant; partner in the firm of Black, Manafort, Stone and Atwater. OFFICIAL ROLE IN BUSH CAMPAIGN: Chairman of Bush's political action committee (PAC), expected to be campaign manager. UNOFFICIAL ROLE: Monitoring how Bush's rivals Jack Kemp and Bob Dole play in the hinterlands -- almost as much as he monitors Bush.
When Jack Kemp was asked recently if there was one political operative he would like on his team, he promptly named Lee Atwater. "He is the only one over there who gives us pause," says John Buckley, Kemp's spokesman.
As chairman of the Fund for America's Future, the political action committee that will soon be transformed into a Bush-in-'88 organization, Atwater is the man who has to know how Texas and Illinois have voted since 1922 and where Jim Baker is at all times. He's the master-planner of Bush campaign strategy and the candidate's point man with everyone from little old ladies in Iowa to cantankerous old pols in the South.
Need George Bush at a fundraiser for Sen. Jeremiah Denton in Alabama? Call Lee Atwater.
Notice that labor groups in Texas are slipping away? Atwater's your contact.
He's also the guy who has to keep the Federal Election Commission at bay as he raises and controls $5 million in PAC money. In theory, these funds are to help Republican candidates in the '86 elections. But in a controversial decision that elated Bush's staff, the FEC ruled last month that PAC money could be used to help elect precinct delegates in Michigan without counting against presidential spending limits. The Bush PAC has 32 full-time staffers, nine part-timers and 80 volunteers; those in the field, not surprisingly, seem to be concentrated in Michigan, Iowa and New Hampshire, where the earliest contests of the '88 campaign will be held.
"Handling the front-runner is sort of like judo," Atwater says. "Your weight can work for you or against you."
A youthful-looking yuppie good ol' boy who loves his six guitars as much as his voter charts, he has always seemed to make his weight work for him in campaigns -- a fact that worked against Bush in the 1980 presidential race. Atwater was running Ronald Reagan's South Carolina primary campaign, and his critics love to relate this story:
George Bush had surprised Reagan in the Iowa caucuses, and even though Reagan had won New Hampshire, his people were still worried. So Atwater bought a series of ads on a local country radio station attacking Bush's pro-gun-control record and asked Reid Buckley, William Buckley's brother, to do the voice-overs. Reid Buckley was identified only as "Mr. Buckley," leaving the impression that he was the influential columnist.
By the time Bush arrived in South Carolina, his staff was so riled up about Atwater's ad campaign that Bush's state campaign manager raised the gun control issue at the state convention without ever being asked about it. Some think the ads finished Bush in the state.
Now, sitting in his downtown office at the PAC (which pays him $120,000 a year), Atwater shrugs it off. "I was on the other side then," he says. "I was signed up with Ronald Reagan long before George Bush was a candidate in the race."
Atwater is a kind of cultural hybrid: a dyed-in-the-wool political conservative since he was 17 who used to travel the South playing backup guitar with black bands in the '60s. At various times, he was the only white face among the Coasters, the Drifters and Percy Sledge's band. "I'll tell you this," he says. "I learned a lot about getting doors slammed in your face in the South."
Born and raised in Columbia, S.C., Atwater got his political feet wet during his freshman year at nearby Newberry College when he volunteered in one of Strom Thurmond's Senate races. He's been in and out of campaigns ever since, an obsessive strategist who ran his own southern political consulting business from 1974 until the 1980 presidential election. "Twenty-eight wins and four losses," he's quick to point out.
He first got to know George Bush in 1973, when Bush was chairman of the Republican National Committee and Atwater was executive director of the RNC's College Republicans.
"I was 22 and I used to date Strom Thurmond's interns every summer," he remembers. "There was this one redhead I was walking on picket fences for, but I just wasn't getting anywhere . . . So I got George Bush to agree to have a picture taken with her, and I thought that would be impressive.
"Afterwards he said, 'I'm gonna tell you something. This ain't cutting it for you. She has no idea who I am; me being chairman of the RNC means nothing to her.' He said 'Look, I have to go to Texas this weekend, and my boat is going to be on the Potomac. Why don't you take her out?' So my first date with my wife was on George Bush's boat."
In his six years in Washington -- first in the political office of the White House, then as deputy director of Reagan-Bush '84 under Ed Rollins -- Atwater has earned a reputation as a forward-thinking campaign planner and a tough inside operator.
But these days, his enemies are coming out of the woodwork. One rival not-too-lovingly called him the "consummate brown-noser." He is both blamed and credited with moving Bush further to the right, the strategy that opened Bush to the charge of "pandering." Those who have been through national political campaigns also observe that Atwater has been a little too visible too early, making both him and the campaign vulnerable.
"It's dangerous," says Mondale campaign chief Johnson. "Bush has to be very careful not to have people out there talking about politics and strategy at this stage. The focus needs to be on leadership and issues, not tactics and rumors."
"Being attacked by Jim Johnson on strategy," responds Atwater, "is like being called ugly by a frog."
Finally, while Republicans acknowledge that Atwater's southern experience should be an asset in the critical southern primaries, some strategists are concerned he'll focus on the South to the exclusion of other areas.
"I don't think the whole game is the South," Atwater says, "but I do think it's a proven fact that on the presidential level we've broken the Democratic Party's back in 1980 and 1984 by having a solid South."
After Bush's speech attacking Cuomo, Atwater says, "Someone came up to me and said, 'This is crazy. You all are going to nominate Cuomo . . .' I said, 'Fine with me.' Tickle me to death to have a New York Frost Belt candidate . . . A New Deal Democrat is just not going to cut it in the South, and it's not because his name is Mario."
Says Brad Johnson, Cuomo's Washington counsel: "The next time they want to plan an event to promote the governor, I hope they call me. I'd like to work with them."
Atwater insists he wants nothing out of this campaign. He even manages to sound like he means it.
Chief of staff at the White House in '88?
"No way," he says. "I'll never go back to the White House. There's nothing in this for me, except the win. Which, as you know, is everything."