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Dole's New Media Team Will Focus on 'Moral Crisis,' Clinton's Credibility

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 15, 1996; Page A17

In the summer of 1993, Greg Stevens was searching for a way to boost his candidate, George Allen, who was climbing out of a 30-point hole in the Virginia governor's race.

The answer, in a word, was crime. The Alexandria ad man made commercials in which Allen spoke of a brutal murder, pounded Democratic Attorney General Mary Sue Terry as soft on crime and vowed to abolish parole for violent criminals. Allen surged in the polls and won the election handily.

Now Stevens has been asked to work his magic for another struggling candidate, Robert J. Dole, as part of the Republican nominee's third media team in seven months. And, once again, there are plans to use crime ads to spotlight what Stevens calls the nation's "moral deterioration" under President Clinton.

"Crime, and the drug issue that affects crime, will be one of the most important messages of this campaign," Stevens said in his office on Alexandria's waterfront. "It's a good issue for Bob Dole and a bad issue for Bill Clinton. . . . Obviously, we have to draw the contrast with Clinton, and that will be the easy part."

Stevens and his new partner, Alex Castellanos, have been masters at exploiting so-called wedge issues -- crime, capital punishment, affirmative action, gay rights -- in statewide races. And Dole's previous media advisers, Don Sipple and Mike Murphy, already had prepared a series of stark ads blaming Clinton for violent crime and drug use, which tested well with focus groups.

A version of one ad shows a grinning Clinton saying on MTV, when asked whether he wished he had inhaled when trying marijuana: "Sure, if I could." Another features menacing footage of young thugs smashing car windows and gunning down victims.

The larger question is whether these issues will resonate for a presidential candidate. Clinton has sought to inoculate himself by stressing his efforts to hire more police and ban assault weapons, and in a recent poll a plurality picked Clinton over Dole as best able to deal with crime. But Stevens sees the ads as a way to connect the former senator to the everyday problems of voters.

Initial news reports suggested that Stevens, Castellanos and a third consultant, Chris Mottola, were hired to produce killer negative ads. But the campaign has settled on a two-track strategy: tear down the president while building up Dole as a war hero and man of character.

It was no accident, then, that Stevens rushed last weekend to produce a two-minute ad that tied Dole's roots in Kansas and his World War II injury to a growing "moral crisis."

"Unfortunately, the American people still don't know Bob Dole," Stevens said. "Bob Dole the man is the most compelling piece of this puzzle that voters need to accept the rest of the campaign's message."

Dole aides have been confidently predicting for a year that voters would embrace their man once they got to know him. The strategists admit it is awfully late in the game to be reintroducing the candidate.

Castellanos made clear that the new team will open fire on the president's veracity. "The record's got to be set straight here," he said. "It must be very liberating to be unencumbered by having to tell the truth. He's painting Bob Dole as the kind of man who wants senior citizens to starve and babies to die. Who is this man? What won't Bill Clinton do to win?"

Stevens said the campaign might do something akin to the mocking Republican ad he made last winter, using rapid-fire clips of Clinton saying he could balance the budget in six or seven or eight or nine or 10 years.

"It just reminded people what they already knew about Bill Clinton -- that he'll say whatever he has to say at the moment," Stevens said. "It obviously hit his credibility, which is his greatest vulnerability."

Mottola, a Philadelphia-based consultant, is also known for a take-no-prisoners approach. "When things get really bad," he was quoted as saying in 1992, "I lie awake in bed and offer up prayers that my opponent will say an out-and-out lie. This offers me a chance to beat them senseless."

While attack ads are effective, the consultants say they also must cast their clients as credible alternatives. Stevens won national attention in 1994 for helping bring little-known Massachusetts businessman Mitt Romney within striking distance of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D).

"He did as good a job for Romney as you could have done," said Robert Shrum, Kennedy's media adviser. "His ads were tough and professional and competent and creative."

That same year, Castellanos helped elect Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) with folksy ads showing him in casual clothes on a farm with a pickup truck. "He had a good feel for what I would call the average person," Thompson said. "We didn't run any negative commercials."

Said Castellanos: "Don't print that I also do positive spots, because it would ruin my reputation."

Castellanos, 42, is a Dole veteran who worked for his 1988 presidential bid and 1992 Senate campaign. He also made ads for President George Bush in 1992 with Sipple and Murphy, who quit the Dole camp last week in a power struggle.

Seven months ago, Castellanos was churning out anti-Dole spots for Texas Sen. Phil Gramm. "Remember Senator Straddle?" one asked. "He cuts deals and voters rejected him. Well, Bob Dole hasn't changed." The commercials accused Dole of "caving on a balanced budget" and having "abandoned" his "tax-cut promises."

As these ads suggest, Castellanos doesn't pull punches. An immigrant who came here at age 6 with his Cuban parents, he is best known for the 1990 ad for Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) in which a pair of hands crumples a rejection letter as the narrator says: "You wanted that job, but they had to give it to a minority."

"What we said in that ad was that nobody should get a job or be denied a job because of the color of their skin, and I believe that," he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Rivals have a harsher view. "Castellanos and his ilk wouldn't know the truth if it came up and bit them in the nose," said Jim Andrews, campaign manager for Harvey Gantt, who is again challenging Helms in North Carolina. "They don't care."

Last spring, Castellanos made a Helms ad accusing Gantt and another Democrat of supporting racial quotas and health benefits for homosexuals. Helms dumped Castellanos in a subsequent shake-up.

In the 1994 Florida governor's race, Castellanos sparked a backlash with an ad for Republican Jeb Bush. A mother whose daughter was slain blamed "liberal" Gov. Lawton Chiles (D) for the fact that "her killer is still on death row," although the inmate's appeal had never reached the governor's desk. Castellanos "just stepped over that line of credibility," said Chiles ad man Frank Greer. "He is known as being more hard-edged . . . than most media consultants. But I don't underestimate his effectiveness."

Stevens, 47, was asked to join the Dole team last year, but declined because he did not want to work with the campaign's first media consultant, Stuart Stevens. He is close to a member of the ticket, having made ads for Jack Kemp's 1988 presidential run.

A former reporter, Stevens worked as chief of staff for New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean. He later joined forces with hard-charging GOP consultant Roger Ailes, collaborating with him in George Bush's 1988 campaign on the spot that ridiculed Democrat Michael S. Dukakis for riding in a tank.

Sharp-edged humor is a Stevens signature. During Bush's reelection bid, Stevens made an ad in which a narrator spoke of Clinton's shifting explanations of his draft avoidance while a stammering boy explained that the dog ate his homework. That style will be on display in the Dole campaign's final weeks.

"People are laughing about politics anyway," Stevens said. "Despite what the pundits . . . say, people want the negative information that's going to help them make a decision -- if it's done in an entertaining way. All of this stuff is entertainment, frankly."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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