"What about negative advertising?" a reporter wanted to know.
"The Republicans ought to talk about that," said Democratic political consultant Matt Reese.
"There's nothing said about that," said Hal Larson, a San Francisco advertising executive and political consultant who had helped organize the event.
"I think Stu talks about it," said Hugh Schwartz, a political pollster who travels between offices in San Francisco and Washington."
Schwartz meant Stu Spencer, the veteran Republican political operative who has worked for Presidents Reagan and Ford.
"I kind of dance around it," Spencer responded.
So it went in the hotel dining room yesterday morning as a group of America's leading political consultants temporarily put aside partisan posturing to launch a taped clinic on campaign techniques that they say will raise the level of electioneering in this country.
It was as if during a lull in the Civil War, a group of Confederate and Union generals had gotten together to pass on their wisdom to the lieutenants in the field--except that the money is better now.
"Well," said Spencer to the audience of reporters who wondered why the 14 consultants had put their partisan differences behind them and banded together to form the Political Campaign Institute, "the first priority is the profit center."
The consultants served up eggs and toast, but saved the ham for the film. On the preview, one was introduced as the "celebrated pollster from Houston," another as "the Washington guru" and Matt Reese, a man who cuts a wide figure, literally and figuratively, in political circles as "the king-sized political genius."
What these consultants offer, for $975, is 2 1/2 hours of advice on such modern campaign techniques as polling, phone banks, strategy, fund-raising, organizing, computer technology, political law and research.
"There are more lousy campaigns than good campaigns," said Hal Larson, who along with Schwartz conceived of the institute, indicating that a few hours with their tape could make a big difference in the way campaigns are conducted in the United States.
But, asked one reporter, what about the fact that despite all these improved campaign skills and a more professional core of consultants, voter turnout has been going steadily downhill, except for 1982?
Did Reese blink? Not so you could notice.
"We're looking to win," he said. "Getting out a big vote is not necessarily the way to win. I don't take much comfort in a big vote in which I come out the loser."
The "faculty" of the institute is made up of professionals, after all, not a group of civics teachers. Which is why the issue of negative advertising came up.
"Get on the offensive early and stay on the offensive," Spencer advised on the preview tape.
Not many flinched during the discussion of negative advertising of the kind that ran rampant through the 1982 races.
"If your opponent has 60 percent and you have 40 percent, there ain't no way to win if you don't get some of his," Reese said. "You have to attack . . . . The only issue is to draw the line."
Precisely where that line falls apparently is like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's definition of pornography: "I know it when I see it."
Someone noted the apparent gender gap among the faculty of 14 men and the audience of reporters that included just one woman. Spencer was upbeat.
"Most of the good young people I've seen in campaigns the last six years are women," he said.
Larson said the purpose of the taped clinic was not to improve the image of the consulting industry, but to help aspiring campaign managers do a better job.
"We're not trying to polish the lamp," he said. "We're trying to brighten the lamp."