'Manhattan Project,' 1992

THE FIELD BELONGED TO CLINTON. Only Jerry Brown remained standing, but he was down 40 pounds from fasting, and his refusal to accept defeat only seemed to underscore the quixotic nature of his cause. The voters might rally to his hellfire message but not to the man himself, who seemed the champion not of a new age but a leftover counterculture. "Jerry," said Warren Beatty when they met in California, "you've got to do two things: get fatter and get funnier." From his vantage point at the Democratic National Committee, Ron Brown passed some private advice to the Clintonians: get ready for the fall campaign.

No Democrat needed a reminder of the last three presidential campaigns when their party had struggled through a hard primary season, anointed the victor with enthusiasm-and then suddenly found that either the man or his message (or both) was woefully inadequate to face the Republicans in the fall. In fact, some of the sharper political minds in Clinton's camp were desperately fearful that the same thing was about to happen again. With energy, skill, charm and sheer determination, Clinton had captured the Democratic Party. But the "character problem" still dogged him, and his handlers doubted he had won over the hearts or minds of anything approaching a majority of the electorate. Worse, they suspected that his campaign, if it stayed on its present course, would never manage to do so.

And so was born a top-secret program of research and recasting that Mandy Grunwald called "The Manhattan Project." Like the quest for the atom bomb for which it was named, it sought salvation in the arcana of science-in this case the dimly understood complexities of opinion research rather than the mysteries of nuclear fission. In mid-April, James Carville and Stan Greenberg drew up a memo laying out their worries. "The central problem is 'trust'," they observed. Clinton's negative rating had soared to a lethal 41 percent in a Connecticut poll; a DNC poll showed him trailing Bush by 24 points in honesty and trustworthiness. To find out why, they had talked to pollsters, media consultants and policy wonks. For inspiration, they circulated copies of Nixon's Checkers speech. One thing they heard constantly was "No one knows why Bill Clinton wants to be president." Now they needed to talk directly to voters, and the medium they chose was that staple of modern marketing: the focus group.

First they assembled a group of 10 white women in Allentown, Pa. They were independents or "weak" Democrats, 45 or older, and before the session began five were for Perot, three for Bush and only two for Clinton. What did they think of Clinton? "He just goes with the flow," said one panelist. "If you asked his favorite color he'd say 'Plaid'." (Afterward, whenever Clinton fudged, his staffers said he's gone "plaid.") Does he care about you? "No, not about things in my life." Could you trust him? "He wouldn't steal, but he would shade the truth." His morals? Every woman said she didn't have a problem but expected others might.

Greenberg wanted to test a hypothesis: that the campaign could improve Clinton's image by telling the story of his life. He offered it to the focus group in a crisp condensation of 35 items: the small town where he was born, the alcoholic stepfather whom he stood up to, his record as Arkansas governor. Around the table, opinions slowly began to change. "Sounds like he has a lot more morals than the papers give him credit for-and ethics," one woman said. After reading the bio, the women were seven for Clinton, two for Bush, one for Perot.

A second group, men this time, provided more fodder. At the beginning of the session, five of the men supported Perot, one backed Bush, one was for Clinton. Initially his negatives were high. "Slick Willie," said one. "Plays both sides of the street," said another. "He sure as hell tries to stretch it," added a third. Then, a surprise. Asked whether Clinton's morals hurt the candidate, every man confessed to troubles of his own and refused to cast the first stone. Made you think of JFK, not Teddy. Corrupt? No way. What did they like most about him? "He worked his way through Yale ... he identifies with the average person." Other positive buzzwords were "forceful," "creative," "effective." By the end of the session Clinton won six votes, Perot one, Bush zero. The lesson was plain: a turnaround could be done.

Greenberg drew up an interim report. Clinton, he warned, had not made clear to the American public who he was or what he stood for. "The campaign," he stressed, "must move on an urgent basis before the Perot candidacy further defines us (by contras) and the Bush-Quayle campaign defines us by malice." The question of character was key. "We have probed the whole issue of trust and honesty," Greenberg wrote, and the results were astonishing. Clinton's real problem wasn't Gennifer Flowers, the draft or marijuana. What was really hurting him was "the belief that Bill Clinton is a typical politician."

Clinton himself, the report went on with ruthless candor, reinforced this image. "He won't look you straight in the eye" was a common denominator in the focus groups. Some of the impressions were inaccurate: many voters thought he was rich, privileged like the Kennedys, apparently because of his Ivy League law school and mediagenic brush cut. Some thought the Clintons were childless. Other convictions were more subjective: that he couldn't stand up to special interests. But one could be fatal: "Clinton cannot be the candidate of change." To turn things around, Greenberg wrote, they had "to take radical steps"-and very quickly-to "depoliticize" their man.

The idea was not to reinvent but to reposition Clinton. They had to put his life story to better use. Given a brief sketch, voters started saying things like "down-to-earth ... no silver spoon ... the opposite of Bush." They could pit him against special interests by showing how he had fought the Arkansas teachers association and the National Rifle Association. They needed to exploit "counterpolitical" media: more ask-Bill town halls and talk shows. They had to stress that Clinton had a plan, not just a series of disjointed ideas, for "radically changing government." The candidate needed to put more stress on his middle-class message, featuring items like tax and health-care reform and college loans. He had to talk up "investing in people," with expanded opportunities in education and job training. "Clinton's candidacy will not catch on unless voters come to understand what Bill Clinton wants to do to change America," Greenberg predicted. "Right now, they have no idea what he wants except to get elected."

Armed with this sobering message, Carville, Greenberg and Frank Greer assembled in Philadelphia to brief Clinton on the Manhattan Project. It was the day of the Pennsylvania primary, and the candidate was sitting in his suite feeling grumpy. He said the campaign was not diverse enough; he wanted more women and blacks in view. Too much strategy was getting into the papers. The schedule was crazy. Greenberg, the bravest of advisers, decided that Clinton needed some shock treatment. "You're feeling sorry for yourself," he told him. "You are too self-absorbed. People are not going to vote for someone to bring about change unless it's for them, not for you." Clinton was silent for a moment, a sign that he got it. Then he asked if his negatives were so high that he would lose in November. Greenberg told him the voters were "not drawing conclusions that disqualified him for president." If he improved in time, he would be all right by fall.

In her Washington office on the edge of Georgetown, Grunwald mapped a new media strategy to take advantage of the Manhattan Project findings. "People now think of Clinton as a Yuppie," she said. "If people don't know the basic facts about his life, his career and his message by the end of the convention, we are toast." She urged Clinton to invade the pop culture through talk shows and call-in programs. But nothing seemed to happen; her plan of action got caught in a collision of egos and an onset of inertia at campaign headquarters. Carville, furious, threatened more than once to resign, but was talked out of it. In late April, Grunwald and Greer fired off a rocket to Little Rock. "What are we waiting for?" they demanded. In Washington, Grunwald studied the calendar. "We are not ready for prime time," she thought, "and my God, it's only six weeks until the convention."

Undeterred, the Manhattan Project whirred on, analyzing Clinton's weaknesses. At a batch of focus groups in suburban New Jersey, Grunwald tested three new message tracks. Once again the group was made up of 10 women. College-educated women in particular seemed suspicious of Clinton. The first trial message was "The New Covenant." The response was blistering: "Just words ... glib... insulting... like blaming the victims ... almost like Hitler." Greenberg dropped his head on the table and groaned. "That's the worst thing anyone's ever said about anything I've done," he said. Track two, "Fighting for the Forgotten Middle Class," drew "baloney ... propaganda." Track three: "Putting People First" brought more negatives. By the end, Greenberg sat fiddling with a purple Slinky, a toy someone had left on the table. "Frightening," he thought. "They think he's so political the message stuff gets completely discounted. In fact, it makes it worse."

Signals like these only darkened Clinton's mood. "He's completely self-absorbed," said one top adviser. "It's worse than you can imagine-he's the most bitter man I know right now." The candidate upbraided his campaign people for being too traditional, too bureaucratic, too slow. He chafed that time spent campaigning took him away from Arkansas. More significantly, he dawdled over picking the communications director the campaign needed to extract media power from the Manhattan Project. Clinton and Hillary provided the campaign's center of gravity; when they were off balance, others tended to go askew. For a while the Little Rock staff obstructed the professional consultants so successfully that the consultants threatened to go on strike. Grumbling about the candidate and his wife, one aide said, "We may not be ready for a presidential campaign, but neither are they-they're not ready for anything bigger than a governor's race."

To break the gridlock, Greenberg now tried one of Ronald Reagan's favorite tools: the dial group. In a dial group, viewers chart their reactions to a TV presentation by moving an electronic needle along a calibrated scale: 0-50 indicates frigid to cool, 50-100 registers cool to warm to hot, hot, hot. In Dayton, Ohio, Greenberg and Clinton studied a group of 26 moderate to slightly liberal white women; only six were mildly impressed by Clinton. But when he said things like, "No more something for nothing," the needles moved up. When he talked about keeping kids in school, the needles flicked to 60. Getting welfare recipients off the rolls in two years produced a 75-point spike.

OVER THE NEXT TWO HOURS, a moderator bombarded the women with positive information, then asked how they felt about the candidates. "If we can't move them after this, shoot, we ought to all quit," Carville said. The women started saying that Clinton looked presidential, determined, caring, a man who shared their values. His favorability rating moved past 60, while Bush and Perot stood shoulder to shoulder at 45. He won head-to-head contests with both men. Offering a small prayer of relief, Greenberg said, "Jesus, look at the favorables. We know we can make a difference. We just need a message and a way to communicate it."

In Charleston, W.Va., a few days later, Carville and Greenberg showed Clinton a video of his speeches and commercials with a superimposed line indicating the pulse of the dial groups. Clinton had never seen the technique before. He watched transfixed. "He wants to be the best student-he always got the A," observed one aide. "Here were people grading him." The candidate's basic problem was simple: he had made himself a master of conventional polities, but he was running in a year when people wanted anything but a conventional politician. His advisers had been imploring him not to offer cool-process answers to hot-button questions. Voters hated politics; they wanted answers to their problems. Now the lesson mostly took. (He couldn't quite believe it when the needle dropped on Hillary; he thought she must have had a bad hair day.) As a joke the candidate made a speech entirely in process-speak after the show. Then he started talking straighter.

Clinton had no intention of turning himself into a retro populist, but he now recognized that the message he had used in the primaries was too soft, too diffuse for the general election. In late May, the Manhattan Project issued a revised report. The campaign, it said, should choose from four variations on Clinton's basic message:

The People First, investing in the American people to secure the economic future;

Opportunity With Responsibility, stressing "no more something for nothing";

The Middle Class, a populism of the center, not the left;

Reinventing Government, not a revolution but a plan to make the system work for you.

The problem was that polling and focus groups suggested that all four had equal throw-weight; none, by itself, was strong enough to bump off the opposition. But at last they had the rudiments of a program to reach beyond the primaries.

Creakily, the campaign began to head in a more promising direction. Two dozen insiders met in the basement of the governor's mansion in Little Rock. Greenberg explained the theory and practice of the Manhattan Project. Mickey Kantor announced that Stephanopoulos would fill the job of the long-missing communications director; his mission would be to turn the results of the project into action. "We are too concerned with inside politics-it's the sign of a campaign in trouble," Carville warned everyone. He noted that some Clintonites wanted a "particularist" message sporting so many details no voter could ever absorb them. He favored a lean "universalist" approach, the Manhattan Project's simplified vision. The best way to go, he said, was People First, with a strong dose of Responsibility. The meeting went so well that Hillary suggested a follow-up session next day.

When they reconvened, she said, "Bill, before we start, why don't you tell them what we talked about last night?"

"I've been thinking about the message," Clinton told the group. "Here's what concerns me. I love this stuff, but I can't run on deadbeat dads."

He meant that many of the ideas on the table were too small. He wanted an economic message that would draw an unmistakable contrast between himself and George Bush. The focus had to be on investing "up" rather than waiting for wealth to trickle down. He said he thought People First was a big enough idea, but it had no villain. Opportunity/Responsibility had villains-welfare cheats, deadbeat dads-but none of winning size. He said he was also worried because he had not had time to give more thought to economics. The world had changed since the previous summer; many assumptions were no longer valid. He wanted to draw economic thinkers like Robert Reich and Ira Magaziner and other policy experts into building the message. At last he was thinking bigger. "We left on air," said Grunwald. "We had been alone, flailing around." Now there was movement, purpose.

The job of analyzing the dynamics of the three-man race went to Carville, Greenberg and Grunwald. They met again in Little Rock late in May. The first task was to consider the distinctions they wanted to make among Perot, Bush and Clinton. They drew up a list. Perot was cold, impatient, rigid, ruthless. Bush had no core beliefs. Clinton was warm, committed. They would start with that.

"We need to mention work every 15 seconds," offered Carville. Warming to the theme, Grunwald said, "By the end of the convention, what do we want people to know about Clinton: that he worked his way up; that his life's work had been in education and investing in people; that he values work; that he had moved people from welfare to work; that he has a national economic strategy to put America back to work." Carville chimed in, "The word 'work' works for us. There are no quick fixes, no hoaxes, no easy answer. We have to work our way out of this mess."

The next day they took their conclusions to a strategy summit at the governor's mansion. Greenberg put up some charts. With Bill and Hillary Clinton watching closely, the pollster described the political landscape around them. In 1980, he said, Reagan won the election by promising to "get government off our backs." Clinton could win in 1992 by saying, "It's time to do right by our own people." The essential story, he continued, was that in the 1980s the few-leaders in the corporations, the Congress and the White House-neglected the many. The consequences were that work was not honored, good jobs were lost, everyone but the few felt insecure. This was not a class-war argument, he said, because the few neglected the middle class, and Americans believed the middle class was everybody. The answer for the 1990s had to be a plan to do right by the American people. "A plan means a contract," he said. "It's not, 'Read my lips'."

Then Paul Begala stood up and presented the Clintons with a synopsis of a revised stump speech: "We have to make America work again," Begala began. We tried an experiment in the 1980s. It worked for the few, but it failed for the rest of us. It didn't honor, reward or encourage work. It did not invest in our people. It took us 12 years to dig ourselves into this hole, but we can get out if we have a commitment, a plan. Investing in our own people means education, health care, insurance reform, cutting bureaucracy, taking on the drug companies. Rewarding work means saying to those permanently on welfare, "You'll get education, job training, health care, but after two years you'll get a job." Responsibility applies to CEOs who paid themselves outrageous salaries, let their companies go down the drain, took tax breaks to do it. We have to create millions of jobs in high tech, biotech, fiber optics, short-haul aircraft, high-speed rail. If we don't come back together as a society, we will fail.

Clinton listened carefully, then he stood up and cut through the rhetoric. He had won the nomination without anyone knowing what he stood for, he said. They might as well admit it. "So far as I'm concerned," he went on, "we're at zero. We're a negative. We're off the screen. We don't exist in the national consciousness. We might as well have been like any member of Congress and kissed every ass in the Democratic Party. I don't think you can minimize how horrible I feel, having worked all my life to stand for things, having busted my butt for seven months and the American people don't know crap about it after I poured $10 million worth of information into their heads." He added that his team was giving him little more than a 45-second rehash of the speech he'd made when he announced his candidacy, but he would go out and give it a try. He didn't have any other choice.

As June began with its final slog through California, Ohio and New Jersey, Clinton felt badly off balance, unsure of his new tack and uncertain of his prospects. "He's too afraid to have faith anymore," observed one aide. "He doesn't want to win, he just wants someone to blame." Watching him perform unsteadily, another handler, shaking his head, said, "We were playing Moses out there. We were all over the desert out there." The constant intramural squabbling among his campaign troops rattled him, but he chose not to play referee. He admitted to friends that the trauma of having an alcoholic stepfather who abused his family had made him shy away from face-to-face conflict. His natural impulse was to act as a conciliator, a mediator. This gave him an advantage in governance, the art of the possible; but it put him at a serious disadvantage in campaigning, the craft of grasping power.

The Manhattan Project had not put away its dials and one-way mirrors, and in early June Greenberg and Carville brought Clinton good news, for a change. The latest round of dial groups had electrified the two handlers. "Bush is in deep trouble," Greenberg reported. Every time the president's face appeared, the needles slanted down. "Bush is simply not credible as a leader on economics or as a change agent," the pollster concluded. Perot voters were even more anti-Bush than the rest of the electorate, and many of them were uneasy with Perot's vagueness on the details of his program; they were willing to listen to Clinton.

In mid-June, Greenberg wrote another secret memo presenting the final conclusions of the Manhattan Project. The failures of government, he observed, should provide Clinton's "entry point" to the general election. By identifying himself with rage against Washington, Clinton could regain his advantage as outsider. He should be saying that trickle-down had failed and the middle class had shrunk. For most people, government was providing worse schools, more welfare and health care so expensive it was edging out of reach. To corporations and the wealthy it was providing deregulation, bailouts and massive tax cuts. When Greenberg tested the modified message, it produced an eight-point shift in the electorate to Clinton. When he used the negative material the campaign was developing on Perot, an additional 7 percent of the electorate shifted their way. "This message," Greenberg predicted, would change "the dynamics of the race."

A month before the Democratic convention, Greenberg wrote a memo analyzing the demographic slice of the electorate that Clinton should go after. At the time Clinton was still running third behind Perot and Bush. But, according to Greenberg, he had 25 percent of the vote and he was poised to move up, pass Bush and take over second place. Now he should concentrate on winning over Perot voters. They tended to be more Democratic in political outlook; many of them were blue-collar workers; many were Roman Catholics. Clinton needed to concentrate on the lower half of the electorate, economically speaking-particularly working women. "We can win this election by reaching Democrats broadly understood," Greenberg concluded. "The campaign does not need to go right to reach its targets. It needs to go broad to reach a center-left alignment."

STEPHANOPOULOS, newly installed in the communications slot, began to extend the campaign's media reach. He booked Clinton on MTV, and the candidate scored with the twentysomethings. Clinton made the "Today" show, "Good Morning America" and "CBS This Morning," serving himself great helpings of free early-morning prime time. For the nighttime crowd, he was live with Larry King, and he put on his Ray-Bans, got out his sax and played "Heartbreak Hotel" with Posse on Arsenio Hall. "It's crazy to spend money now," thought Grunwald. Clinton canceled two of the three town meetings he had scheduled for NBC. Why pay when they were getting so much air time free?

Clinton also took to what his handlers called "counterscheduling," saying unpopular things to certain groups to prove his independence. When he addressed Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, he attacked Sister Souljah, a rap singer who woofed that blacks should take a week off from killing each other to concentrate on whites. Begala had noticed her incendiary remarks, and he pressed Clinton to take her to task. "Jesse is convinced it was an attempt to embarrass him, which it wasn't," one senior adviser said later. But privately, others acknowledged they had been out to appeal to suburban whites. In a private meeting immediately after the flare-up, Clinton told Jackson he would not be his running mate. Jackson had come armed with a memo laying out the case for how much he could help the ticket, and he asked Clinton to read it. But it was not an open question for Clinton, and Jackson, a political magnet with almost equal power to attract and repel, faded from view for the rest of the campaign.

Clinton was also finally persuaded to settle another delicate matter, this time within his own staff. All through the campaign he had surrounded himself with too many counselors. This conveniently enhanced his own authority (and Hillary's influence), but it left the organization a shambles. His frustrated consultants finally engineered a coup. In Little Rock one day in late June, Grunwald, who had become the campaign's chief advertising strategist, urged Clinton to give Carville real command of the show. "This campaign terrifies me," she said, "because there aren't any people in charge who wake up every morning trying to figure out how to f--- the competition." To get his way, Carville needed Hillary's support. He held a nighttime meeting with her at the governor's mansion. Clinton joined them. When they were finished, Carville thought he had what he needed. "Thank God," said one top hand. "He's the only one who knows how to play in this league." But even with his new authority Carville faced obstruction from the FOBs and some of the staff. It was only during the convention, after another private meeting with the Clintons, that he was finally certified as main man.

Staff meetings continued to be testy, even as Clinton's coronation approached. "If we don't get a lot better fast," Carville stormed, "we are going to get blown off the face of the earth." But during the same meeting a fresh poll arrived. It showed Clinton (33) running first, Perot (30) dropping to second, and the president (29) bringing up the rear. "A fast track," Carville said with a grin. "It's going to happen."

BY THEN, THE JOB OF PICKING a running mate was well underway. Clinton had named a search team: Warren Christopher, a veteran Democratic wise man; Madeleine Kunin, the former governor of Vermont, and Vernon Jordan, a Washington lawyer and civil-rights advocate. There would be no unseemly public procession of candidates to be vetted, Clinton told them; he didn't want what he called "the Noah's Ark routine." By late April the scouts had worked up a list of about 40 contenders. During a two-hour meeting in Tallahassee, Fla., Clinton winnowed the names down to Gov. Barbara Roberts of Oregon; Sens. Al Gore of Tennessee, Bob Graham of Florida, John Kerry of Massachusetts, Sam Nunn of Georgia, Bill Bradley of New Jersey and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia; Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Colin Powell; Maynard Jackson, mayor of Atlanta; John Sculley, head of Apple Computer Inc.; Bruce Babbitt, the environmentalist former governor of Arizona, and Bill Moyers, the broadcast journalist. Gov. Ann Richards of Texas and Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado subsequently joined the fluid list. Dissatisfied, Clinton asked for "another three Sculleys." Sculley himself disappeared when the search team discovered that he had been married three times.

A squad of three senior and five junior attorneys scrutinized and reported on the finalists. Clinton spent a week weighing their advice. Powell, Bradley and Rockefeller declined to be considered. Nunn was dropped, perhaps because his record on women's issues dissatisfied Kunin, perhaps because he had been too chary in his support during the Georgia primary. Clinton then added three late starters: Sen. Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania, Paul Tsongas and Mario Cuomo. "I'd love to pick Cuomo for one reason," he said, "-if you let me be in the room when they tell Dan Quayle." Tsongas and Cuomo removed themselves from contention. The list was reduced to Wofford, Hamilton and Gore.

One anxiety over Gore was his temperament. "Would he look in the mirror every day and say, 'I should be president'?" wondered one of the scouts. Then Clinton returned Graham to contention. And Bob Kerrey crashed the list, telling all of Washington he was on it even though he wasn't. So the Final Five became Hamilton, Graham, Wofford, Kerrey and Gore.

One night at the end of June, a top Clinton aide driving a Jeep Cherokee picked up Gore at his Senate office. They surreptitiously entered the Capitol Hilton through the entrance to a loading dock, waiting for the door to descend before getting out of the Jeep. Using two elevators to confuse anyone who might see them, they went to a ninth-floor suite reserved in the maiden name of the aide's wife. Clinton came in about 10:30. The meeting lasted three hours. By midnight, when aides peered in, they saw the two men cheerfully discussing their favorite economists. It looked like a good match.

A consensus built steadily around Gore (Graham was the runner-up). The Tennesseean's work on the environment attracted Hillary. He offered generational and regional pull. In a three-way race with Perot and Bush, a Southern veep looked even more enticing. Finally, at 11:30 p.m. on July 8, Clinton said, "OK, let's get him on the phone." Tipper Gore answered, then turned the phone over to her husband. Clinton talked for a while about what he meant to do in Washington. Then he said, "I just think you could be a wonderful president"-meaning if anything should happen to him. Gore immediately accepted. The next day Bill and Al, with their blond wives and kids, stood out on the lawn at the mansion. Side by side they suddenly looked enormously attractive-far more potent than either had ever looked running alone.

The ticket went to the convention in a statistical dead heat; Perot and Bush stood at 32 and Clinton at 29 in the latest poll. But as the convention captured the television news, Clinton began to move up decisively. On the last day of the gathering in New York's July heat, Clinton, dressed in red shorts, blue T shirt and running shoes, sat working over his acceptance speech. Suddenly Carville burst into the room.

"AP is reporting that Perot is dropping out."

"Damn," Clinton said. "Ross Perot is my main man."

They sat down to work on an appeal to Perot voters. Greenberg's new tracking poll arrived, showing Clinton at 58, and Bush at 38. Perot appeared on television, saying the "revitalization of the Democratic Party" was one reason he had decided to leave the field. "Yeah," cheered the candidate, and he punched the air with his fist. He phoned Al Gore. "You were the choice in a three-person race," he deadpanned. "But in a two-person race I gotta go with Cuomo." Everyone laughed. Then Clinton asked the staff to get Perot on the phone.

"Ross, no one in American history ever moved as many people as you did."

"My one fear is that you're going to win and [you'll find] the economy will collapse next year," Perot said before ringing off.

Then Hillary made Clinton sit down and finish his victory speech. She suggested a new finale: "I end tonight where it all began for me: I still believe in a place called Hope.