The George W. Bush campaign sold its story twice this week with some political sleight of hand, producing media accounts of a financial juggernaut that somehow grew larger each day.
A spokesman for Bush's presidential bid acknowledged yesterday that he deliberately allowed reporters to understate Bush's fund-raising proceeds by $13 million or more "to keep the expectations bar under what we'd eventually come up with."
David Beckwith said he knew the Texas governor had raised close to $36 million, not the $20 million to $23 million that was widely reported in news accounts Wednesday, but that he "did not want to say" when asked by reporters. The result was a big publicity boost for the Bush camp yesterday as The Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal, among others, ran stories on Bush raising a record-breaking $36.2 million--an eye-opening increase from the day before.
"I think they were spinning," said John Harwood, political editor of the Wall Street Journal. "It's dangerous when you're talking about a moving target and a campaign that has an interest in low-balling you."
The Bush campaign "has not established a good track record of credibility with reporters" in describing its finances, said Susan Glasser, who covers money and politics for The Post. "In presidential fund-raising, a difference of $13 million in one day's time is an extremely misleading thing to say to reporters that cannot be justified as a press strategy."
But if old-fashioned political spin was part of the equation, several reporters admitted that the stories were also driven by a journalistic desire to get a one-day jump on the news. Although the Federal Election Commission reporting period ended Wednesday, reporters scrambled to get the figures leaked in advance, if only because they worried that their rivals would do the same.
"People called to put numbers in our mouths," said Beckwith, who fielded the inquiries from Austin. "All we said is our goal was $15.2 million and we substantially exceeded that. . . . The word '23 million' never crossed my lips. . . . I tried to steer them in the right direction without giving out any real information."
Don Van Natta Jr. of the New York Times called the situation "perplexing. I don't quite understand why they're doing it. . . . They're playing a game with us."
But Mark Barabak of the Los Angeles Times did not blame Bush aides, saying: "They left themselves a certain wiggle room, an almost Clintonesque kind of thing: '23 million or it could be more.' If you go back and parse the sentence, it was more. You sort of have to tip your hat to them."
Robert Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs said the Bush camp's tactic "is slick. The question is whether it's too slick for your own good. You may poison the well so that reporters will disbelieve your projections next time around."
The double dose of fund-raising stories is part of an incredible run of favorable publicity being lavished on Bush more than seven months before the first primary.
Under the ground rules, the estimates published Wednesday could not be attributed to Beckwith or other Bush aides. The Post's front-page story cited "GOP sources"; the New York Times and L.A. Times simply asserted the Bush figures as fact. But some uneasiness could be detected in the language.
The Post warned that the total "was likely to be significantly larger"; the New York Times said that "some campaigns were putting out low estimates" in the hope of being "seen as having exceeded expectations." Other campaigns also put out their estimates that day; Vice President Gore's team said it had taken in just over $18 million, which was accurate.
Both Barabak and Glasser said their newsrooms had internal discussions about the advance stories; Barabak said his paper decided to publish after seeing wire-service accounts of Bush's estimated totals. "There's a feeling it was out there," Barabak said.
Beckwith said he had feared that the fund-raising estimates would "get out of control" and "pretty soon you're at 40 or 45 or 50 [million]. . . . If I have to take some lumps, I'll take them."
CAPTION: George W. Bush's campaign is much wealthier than his camp let on.