When Time reporter Karen Tumulty learned that Vice President Gore would grant her a brief interview in a car, she sought advice from an unlikely source: Gore's spokesman, Chris Lehane.
"You don't normally shop your questions with the press secretary," Tumulty says. "But he was helpful in framing questions that got provocative answers. He's one of those rare press secretaries who can actually help you think through a story."
The interview wound up being touted on Time's cover: "GORE BLASTS BRADLEY."
After months in which the struggling Gore campaign couldn't seem to buy a decent story, the vice president is drawing somewhat better coverage in his primary joust with Bill Bradley. And many reporters credit the 32-year-old Lehane, a former White House scandal flack who returns up to 200 calls a day with a cell phone perpetually attached to his ear.
When Gore appeared at Somersworth High School here last week, Lehane was spinning the press in the back of the gym even as his boss was addressing the crowd.
"You're going to have the fighter versus the professor," Lehane said, describing the Gore-Bradley matchup in the sort of colorful shorthand journalists love. "Most people want someone who's going to roll up their sleeves and work for them. Al Gore's done that for 20 years."
Like most campaign strategists, Lehane tries to use the media to amplify his candidate's message and deflate negative stories. He also specializes in preemptive rebuttals, calling or e-mailing the reporters covering Bradley to get his potshots into their daily pieces. And he has urged Gore to be more accessible to campaign reporters on a daily basis.
"He told me I can have an interview any time I want, just to ask," says Boston Globe correspondent Jill Zuckman. "They've made a lot of effort to get the vice president to spend time with me."
What's more, Zuckman says, "whenever they're going to make an announcement in Boston or New Hampshire, they'll usually give it to us a day ahead of time. We're going to give it a better ride if we have it by ourselves."
Such tactics can backfire, though. In September the Globe was given a front-page exclusive that Gore would unveil a $5 million aid package in Boston to help some of the region's struggling fishermen. But in a second Page 1 story, the Globe said the event had become a "political embarrassment" because the $5 million was old money that had previously been announced.
Lehane's pro-Gore chatter can sound robotic at times, but his style is to chide reporters rather than yell at them. Tumulty recalls what happened when she helped break the story that feminist author Naomi Wolf was a highly paid consultant to Gore: "You come home and find a voice mail left at very odd hours: 'Good God, Tumulty, what are you trying to do to us now?' "
Last week, before Gore delivered a major speech lambasting Bradley, Lehane arranged a sit-down with USA Today. The vice president used even stronger language in the front-page piece, which appeared on the morning of the speech, saying that Bradley's plan would risk "blundering into another recession."
"It added an extra oomph," Lehane says.
In mid-December, when Gore was getting roughed up over his comments on allowing medical use of marijuana and dropping restrictions on gays in the military, Lehane found a way to change the subject. The next morning, the New York Times had an exclusive story on Gore's plan for $115 billion in education spending.
"One of my goals is to use different media outlets to drive different messages," Lehane says, adding that the Times has shown a special interest in education. "Any time you have a front-page story in the New York Times, the coffee goes down a little easier."
Lehane delights in the art of the "prebuttal." On the morning that Bradley was scheduled to give a speech on the need to close corporate tax loopholes, Lehane was e-mailing his response to reporters: "Let's remember that in 1992 and 1993, Bill Bradley supported a special-interest tax loophole that was a boondoggle for the pharmaceutical industry and then-Senator Gore voted against that in 1992." The line was quoted in the next day's New York Times.
Some correspondents grumble that Lehane can be too cute by half. He has been overheard planting news conference questions with less experienced reporters. And Lehane sometimes uses the press as a cover.
After Bradley was briefly sidelined by an irregular heartbeat, Lehane wanted to put out Gore's medical records but worried that the campaign would be seen as exploiting the situation. So he asked reporters to formally request the records in writing, which enabled him to release the information without being portrayed as insensitive.
And Lehane is always conscious of television. When he made Gore available Friday night in Iowa to back off his comments that military leaders would have to agree with him on policies toward gay soldiers, Lehane made sure it was after the network news.
A Harvard Law School graduate who grew up in Maine, Lehane served as Bill Clinton's political director in the state during the 1992 campaign. He joined the White House counsel's office when the Whitewater story was exploding, which inevitably drew him into press strategy. Lehane later worked for Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo and became a vice presidential spokesman in late 1997 before officially switching to the campaign in November.
With his slicked-back hair and crooked smile, Lehane is the campaign's resident funny man. His penchant for practical jokes--he has, according to the New Republic, put a zucchini, a burrito, a dog biscuit and a Jabba the Hutt paperweight in various staffers' luggage--has helped ease tensions on the Gore campaign plane.
"Chris is terrific," says Lorraine Voles, Gore's former communications director. "He does an excellent job at a job that's quite difficult--being open and friendly enough with the press that you develop a relationship with them, but at the same time not forgetting who you work for."
To cheer himself when Gore was getting clobbered by the media, Lehane assembled a huge batch of negative stories written about then-Vice President Bush before he won the White House--and wasn't shy about sharing them with reporters.
Lehane's most beloved possession these days is a miniature headset that plugs into his cell phone so he can speak without holding the receiver to his ear. On a rare Sunday night off, when Lehane took his girlfriend to see "The Talented Mr. Ripley," he spent half the movie in the lobby, returning calls.
"She's a big Gore supporter, which helps," he says.
CAPTION: Gore and his media point man last month: When the boss gets a front-page story, Chris Lehane says, "the coffee goes down a little easier."
CAPTION: Gore and Lehane, right, on the set of the "Today" show Monday.