Even before today's scheduled announcement by V. Dallas Merrell, there was the "briefing book" and the "Phase 1 Plan," the focus group and the mock press conference. There were the breakfasts at Bethesda's Congressional Country Club to court big bucks from businessmen and the three-hour drives to hole-in-the-wall bars for a few meager moments in front of some partying Republicans.
It is almost a textbook case in political promotion -- the molding of Merrell, political unknown, into Merrell, candidate for the U.S. Senate. The buildup is to culminate today with Merrell's announcement at four press conferences around Maryland that he is seeking the Republican nomination to run for the Senate this November.
For those who say it is "cocky" to start a public career by seeking the key to the country's most exclusive political club, Merrell has this handy statistic: 29 current members of the U.S. Senate never held any elective office before their Senate victories. Merrell hopes to make it 30 by winning the GOP primary in September against Prince George's County Executive Lawrence J. Hogan and beating Democratic incumbent Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes in November.
"People have said, 'Have you considered running for Congress or county executive first?' " said Merrell, a management consultant. "My reaction is, why not run for the office you're interested in and qualified for."
Merrell, 46, speaks with a quiet self-assurance that he developed while working his way up from the Idaho farm where he was born. A Mormon, he was graduated from Brigham Young University in Utah and later the University of Southern California, where he earned his PhD in management. He came to the Washington area in 1968 as a fellow with the American Society for Public Administration, and stayed to start his own consulting business the next year.
He lives in a rambling house set on a huge wooded lot in Silver Spring with his wife, Karen, and his eight children, who he promises will "campaign in places where people have never seen candidates campaigning before."
Since his first political foray two years ago, running as a conservative and defender of the family in a longshot bid to oust liberal Republican Sen. Charles McC. Mathias in the primary, Merrell has learned that campaigns cannot be run on homespun help from volunteers.
Merrell said his friend and fellow Mormon, Republican National Committee chairman Richard Richards--who because of his position will not endorse anyone in the primary--gave him one piece of advice: Get professionals to run the campaign. Merrell has done just that. And he is using the stature of those around him to boost his own credibility.
During an interview with the political editor of a chain of several Southern Maryland newspapers, Merrell couldn't wait to do a little name-dropping. "And then I got Richard Wirthlin, the architect of Ronald Reagan's landslide, the pollster, the strategist," Merrell told the editor. "And Wirthlin agreed to do it."
"Merrell links himself with Wirthlin and the pros," said one political strategist who has watched many a Maryland Senate race. "It's good psychology. It impresses the county chairmen . . . and it scares off the opposition."
But Merrell has gotten more than just names for the thousands he has spent on professional assistance from his campaign fund of $43,000. His Phase 1 plan, put together by campaign manager Matt Wirgua (who last year was finance manager for Virginia gubernatorial loser J. Marshall Coleman) and three other consultants, stresses meetings with those that Wirgua likes to call the "opinion makers" -- everyone from county chairmen to political editors to the top businessmen in the state. Just about every week, Merrell follows up with a breezy letter outlining his activities. It opens with the salutation: "Dear Key Republican Leader," and one of its recipients says it's "a nice ego massage."
Merrell has been analyzed as a candidate by his campaign consultant, tested on questions in mock press conferences at his Silver Spring headquarters and filmed for what the media wizards call a "focus group," at which randomly selected viewers watch the film and then give their opinions of the politician as a candidate and a man.
Merrell has traversed the state from the shore to the western panhandle, with his constant companion -- the thick, black briefing book, its dog-eared pages divided by little tabs marked "Federal Regulations," "Foreign Policy" and "Women's Issues." Along the way, his polished, professional roadshow has drawn mixed reviews.
"From what I hear, Larry Hogan is probably taking Merrell too lightly," said one Republican county chairman. "Hogan's people are saying, 'Nobody knows who Dallas Merrell is. He can't win.' They might get a shock."
But another county chairman said he and his colleagues "don't care much about professional campaigns . . . that this one on Merrell's staff was with the Republican National Committee and that one won so-and-so's campaign. I think Merrell is pushing that stuff. I want to know who he is and what he thinks."
Merrell asserts that this is precisely what he wants people to know. "The one thing I want understood is that I am what I appear to be," he said during a recent interview.
But until today, it has been difficult to understand where Merrell stood.
There were only clues. There was his record as the former president of United Families of America, which lobbied against legislation seen as antifamily and touted political training conferences featuring such right-wing luminaries as Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), the Rev. Jerry Falwell and ERA opponent Phyllis Schlafly. There was his leadership of the Maryland Taxpayers Coalition that pushed spending-limit proposals in the legislature, and there was his 1980 primary outing against Mathias in which he finished third in a field of six.
This time out, Merrell appears to be positioning himself between Sarbanes and Hogan, presenting himself as a "positive alternative" to the senator and never mentioning by name his major primary foe. But there is a clear reference to Hogan, the former congressman and party veteran, each time Merrell repeats his favorite refrain, "The people of Maryland want and deserve a fresh candidate."
A spokesman for Sarbanes, who has had nothing to say about Hogan since he announced last February, said the senator would wait to see who the Republican nominee is before making any comment. As far as Hogan is concerned, Merrell doesn't exist. "Basically we're ignoring him," Hogan said recently. "Our polls show he is not a factor. Nobody knows him. He's never won an election. Never been involved in party politics."
But Merrell is undaunted by those drawbacks. This campaign is no political training ground for him, as some have suggested. "This is the only race I'm going to run," he promised with a grin. "Except for my reelection campaign."