Betsy Ames sipped a cup of water one afternoon this week, then ripped into the senior U.S. senator from South Dakota.
"What's happened to Tom Daschle?" Ames asked, her hushed, honey-smooth voice a blend of sadness and contained outrage.
She stood in her Alexandria apartment, in a hallway closet, speaking into a microphone that was perched on a decorative Romanesque column, next to an umbrella that leaned in the corner.
"Tom Daschle has changed," Ames said. "And it's time for South Dakota voters to make a change of their own."
Ames has never met Daschle. Nor has she been to South Dakota.
Not a problem.
She is among a cluster of voice-over performers who are spending these last breakneck days before the election on standby, ready to deliver sunny, heart-thumping testimonials or brooding, finger-wagging attacks.
While new technology makes it possible to pipe voices into recording studios from across the country, the Washington region has long been a hub for narrators of political ads, if only because the city is home to a legion of campaign consultants.
Theirs is a subculture shrouded in secrecy. Some performers prefer to exist behind the curtain in anonymity. Others divulge the barest of details about their clients, the contents of the scripts and their party affiliations. "That's like asking me to sleep with you on the first date," said Elizabeth Noone, 54, who is based in the District and has narrated ads in recent weeks for races in eight states.
If their sonorous intonations are capable of reaching soaring heights, they have no misconceptions about their role in the political process.
"I'm a puppet on a string," said Craig Sechler, 54, of Chevy Chase, who has narrated spots recently for the Democratic National Committee and the Sierra Club.
Yet he and others choose their masters with care. In most cases, they hitch themselves to one party and rarely cross over, not only because they don't want to work for different sides in one state, but because the political parties frown on narrators who speak from both sides of their mouths.
"You can't do Ford and Chevrolet. You can't do Coke and Pepsi. Otherwise you have no credibility," said Sheldon Smith, 65, of Arlington, a longtime narrator who says he has performed commercials for as many as 40 House and Senate candidates during the current campaign season.
In most cases, the performers are trained actors who make a living narrating commercials and documentaries. When a political season rolls around, campaign consultants look for voices capable of cutting through the cacophony of car ads and sitcoms to capture voters' attention.
"If it's not the voice of God, then it's pretty close," said Frank Greer, a partner at Greer, Margolis, Mitchell, Burns and Associates, a political consulting firm. "What you want is a voice that's compelling. There are also times when you want conversation, people who are real and believable and connect with folks. It depends on the ad."
The work can be lucrative, with union-scale fees ranging from a few hundred dollars for a radio ad to thousands for television, depending on the size of the market. Ames and Smith are top GOP voices, and Democratic consultants have their own regulars, among them Kathryn Klvana of Bethesda, who has narrated ads for John F. Kerry's campaign.
Jane Luedersmakes no bones about her Democratic leanings. Although she has worked for Republican candidates, seeking to build her business, Lueders said she turned down an invitation from a consultant this year to narrate ads for President Bush.
"It's gotten too divisive," said Lueders, 45, who is based in the District. "It was philosophical."
Lueders narrated a spot for Kerry's campaign this year, but the presidential campaign has largely passed her by. "It's breaking my heart," she said, describing the top race as "the ultimate. It's like acting in the movie that becomes a hit."
Ames, 61, was a featured voice for Republican Robert J. Dole's 1996 presidential bid. In 2000, she worked for Bush, providing the off-screen voice that mocked Al Gore's claim that he invented the Internet. "Yeah, and I invented the remote control," she retorted in the spot.
Ames, who describes her politics as moderate, said she began working for Republicans only because they contacted her first, when she started in 1984. She said she sometimes disagrees with the substance of the scripts she reads, including those that are antiabortion. But she never turns one down and has rarely raised objections to anything that she has read. "I'm an actress. They give me a script. That's my job," she said.
Her schedule can be rigorous. Last Sunday, she dealt with her last client at 11:30 p.m. and then woke up to calls from three more campaigns. In the afternoon, she completed an ad for candidates running for Congress in New Jersey, and for the Oklahoma State Senate.
Ames read the 60-second spot slamming Daschle several times before the political consultant, listening from his Virginia office, said they were done. "We were looking for sad, like a friend you trusted for years doing something, a little bit of betrayal," said the consultant, Leif Larson. "You want to speak to people, you don't want to bash them over the heads."
The performer who epitomized that style was Lary Lewman of Clarksville, who became the mellifluous voice of the Democratic Party in 1980 when he was retained by Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign. Lewman, who retired in 2000, provided narration for Bill Clinton and hundreds of candidates for Congress and governor.
In most cases, Lewman said, he forgot their names nearly as soon as he said them. "It went in my eyes and out my mouth and didn't stick to my brain," he said.
The style of the ads, he said, has remained largely the same. "I did a thousand mudslingers and flip-floppers," he said.
What has changed is that political consultants hire more women to appeal to female voters. The tools of the trade also have evolved. Performers once visited recording studios, but now they often work from their homes, tapped into the studios through digital phone lines.
The new technology means that they often don't have to spend their days bouncing from studio to studio. But it also means they don't see each other as often.
"It's easier, but do I enjoy it less? Absolutely," Ames said.
On the other hand, she's not exactly complaining. "You don't want anyone to know about how much money you're making per square inch," she said, laughing as she gazed over at her recording studio.