Dishing Dirt

THE SUPER BOWL WAS ON IN THE Topeka Ramada, but Bob Dole didn't want to talk football. It was 1974: Watergate was cresting, and Dole faced a tough Senate re-election campaign. His likely foe at the time was Robert Docking, the popular Democratic governor. So the Kansas Republicans had imported an operative named J. Wayne Poucher to dig for dirt. There was a grand-jury investigation of the Docking administration, Dole and his advisers said, and rumors of corruption in the capital. Now Dole was back in Topeka watching the Super Bowl. At half time, Poucher was ushered into Dole's room. In his diary, discovered by NEWSWEEK in the University of Kansas archives, Poucher wrote that he gave Dole the bad news: his scrub was unlikely to ""produce any evidence of important wrongdoing.'' Dole agreed -- but told him to keep looking. The senator, Poucher noted, ""expressed hope'' that his gumshoe might turn up something.

Fast-forward to last February. The Republican primaries dominate the headlines. But the ""researchers'' helping Bill Clinton, NEWSWEEK has learned, were thinking ahead. They inundated federal agencies with Freedom of Information Act requests. The subject: any contacts between the government and a long list of potential Dole running mates. The names included the obvious (Govs. Jim Edgar of Illinois, George Voinovich of Ohio, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin) and less obvious (California Attorney General Dan Lundgren). The researchers were looking for evidence that these men have asked for embarrassing favors on behalf of special-interest allies. There's nothing dirty about FOIAs, but the Clintonites didn't want to advertise their work. As required by law, they listed their names and addresses. They just didn't point out that ""430 South Capitol St., S.E.'' is the Democratic National Committee.

With Bob Dole and Bill Clinton as the candidates, this is the Year of Oppo: a campaign destined to be nasty, brutish and long. Last week the two men engaged in relatively decorous debates over gasoline, wages and Asia. Republicans continued to be too busy calling each other names to fully focus on the president, who began a series of high-minded commencement addresses. But students of the game -- and of the contenders -- see the tenor of the contest ahead: defined and driven by what the operatives blandly call ""opposition research.'' The economy is cruising, Dole is flailing and the latest polls show him anywhere from 12 to 30 points behind. That means he's got to hit the president hard just to get noticed. The Clinton campaign, always tough, will fax back an answer to every feint. ""It's going to be the nastiest presidential campaign ever,'' predicts Larry Sabato, coauthor of ""Dirty Little Secrets,'' a new chronicle of campaign rough stuff.

At first glance, this doesn't make sense. Dole and Clinton seem to be too well known for any new issue, suddenly unearthed by oppo, to destroy them. Dole has little yen to revive his hoary ""hatchet man'' image; Clinton carefully guards his too-nice-by-half reputation. Both men are dealmakers who privately respect each other's inside moves. Both are aware of public disgust with mudslinging, and know that they could deepen cynicism and depress turnout.

Yet Mortal Kombat is inevitable. These men of the middle -- with seven decades of political experience between them -- must now struggle to exaggerate their ideological differences. They will project cartoon versions of each other, and of each other's supporters (chart). And they have six long months to do it in. Who will benefit? For now, an all-out war is what Dole needs to put Clinton on the defensive and knock him off his presidential pedestal. If the race tightens, expect Clinton to respond in kind. ""A negative hit is worth four or five times more than a positive one,'' says Sabato.

It's already getting personal. Clinton aides refer to every Dole statement as ""tired,'' ""old'' or ""grumpy.'' With Whitewater and Travelgate in the background, Dole has fastened on Clinton's character as a safe topic. ""We haven't found Willie Horton,'' says Dole campaign manager Scott Reed, ""but we have found William Clinton.'' To the White House, that sounds like desperation. ""These guys have nothing to say,'' retorts political director Doug Sosnick. ""Their instincts are to go negative.''

The surroundings encourage oppo, the efforts of reformers notwithstanding. Paul Taylor, a former Washington Post reporter turned public advocate, has shamed the major networks into offering free air time to the candidates this fall. But what the networks giveth, they taketh away. New studies show that candidate sound bites on the evening news shrank in this year's primaries: they're now down to an average of eight seconds. ""If you don't have much time,'' says Sabato, ""it's more effective to be nasty.''

Technological advances favor going negative. The most significant devices will be new computer information retrieval techniques and telemarketing. In other words: more power to dig up dirt and distribute it over phone lines -- outside the view of the media and of rival campaigns. Practitioners of the martial campaign arts have carefully studied Dole's success in attacking his GOP primary rivals with hard-hitting phone banks. Clinton's allies will use the trick extensively.

The lore of oppo is the negative epiphany: the thrill Bush researcher James Pinkerton experienced when he happened on the Horton issue (first raised, ironically, by Al Gore in a 1988 Democratic primary debate). But this campaign will have less to do with dramatic moments than with databases. The Republican National Committee has amassed a vast archive of Clinton video. They dipped into it last week so that media men Mike Murphy and Don Sipple could produce a flip-flop spot -- in four hours. It featured Clinton's infamous Houston mea culpa on tax increases last fall. There will be much more. ""It's a death of a thousand cuts,'' said a top RNC official.

The Clinton oppo team is confronting a similarly huge record. Democratic insiders say the toughest task is unraveling the manuevers Dole has used to get things done -- and cover his tracks. In late 1994, DNC oppo director Eric Berman put in an early bid for a state-of-the-art optical scanner, the better to retrieve information from endless shelves of yellowing congressional documents dating to 1961. It's not enough. ""We'll never finish,'' laments one top Clinton strategist.

The Dole campaign is using its allies on Capitol Hill to help do the same kind of research. Late last month, NEWSWEEK has learned, Newt Gingrich's key lieutenants issued an APB. In an ""urgent'' memo to all committee and subcommittee chairs, Reps. Bob Walker and Jim Nussle asked for staffers to search all records for evidence of ""waste, fraud and abuse'' and ""examples of dishonesty or ethical lapses in the Clinton Administration.'' Reports, they said, were to be sent to a top assistant to House Majority Leader Dick Armey. The aide was Virginia Thomas, who happens to be the wife of Justice Clarence Thomas.

Just gathering oppo won't do the job. The key is disseminating it shrewdly. Don't expect the candidates to do it. What else are surrogates, ads and running mates for? Al Gore is already in the act, dismissing a Dole speech on foreign policy with a not too subtle age attack. The GOP leader had criticized studies that had long since become outdated, Gore said. ""I'm not sure Mr. Dole is aware of what's going on,'' the vice president deadpanned.

Technology helps here, too. The Demo- crats have union allies to help spread the message, especially now that the AFL-CIO is planning to spend $35 million on ""voter education.'' The GOP can counter with their own satellite uplinks, cable network and Web pages. An internal study for the RNC found that an astonishing 20 percent of Republican voters get information from the Internet. ""For us, it's an unfiltered source of information,'' said a GOP official. Translation: we can bypass the hated mainstream media.

But the most important oppo device this year is the prosaic telephone. The idea is to ""narrowcast'' negative messages in the guise of polls that ask loaded questions. Both parties have made such calls, and will almost certainly do so again this fall in close states. Not surprisingly, Richard Nixon pioneered the technique. In his 1946 race for Congress against Democrat Jerry Voorhis, voters in the southern California district reported receiving anonymous calls: ""I'm a friend of yours, but I can't tell you my name,'' the callers would say. ""Did you know that Jerry Voorhis is a Communist?''

Sometimes the mere act of initiating an oppo search can affect an opponent. In Kansas in 1974, Wayne Poucher never found anything on Governor Docking. In fact, the operative ended up trying to help the Democrats catch Dole engaging in oppo war. But Docking decided not to run for the Senate -- and Dole beat the Democrat who did run, Dr. Bill Roy, in a vicious campaign. Docking quit politics soon thereafter. He may have had the right idea. But it's much too late for either Dole or Clinton to turn back now.

There is probably no one "Willie Horton" this year, but the oppo war goes on. Clinton wants to paint Dole as a "tired" tool of extremists; Dole aims to depict Clinton as a dissembling "liberal" waffler.

Get used to ads showing Dole with Newt-a wildly unpopular figure-as Clinton positions himself as the anchor of mainstream government.

By blasting cigarette advertising aimed at teens, Clinton hopes to drive a wedge between the GOP and the deep-pocketed tobacco industry-all while defending family values.

Clinton can use Pat's ghost to depit a GOP in thrall to pro-lifers and "radically" traditional values. The aim: to win over moderate Republican women.

After the assault-weapons ban and Brady-bill victories, the White House controls the debate over guns and crime. Now it thinks it has room to maneuver to attack the NRA as part of the problem-not the solution.

Judge Harold Baer, one of 200 Clinton appointees, initially tossed out drug evidence in a New York case, giving Dole a way to brand Clinton as soft on crime-and insidiously liberal.

An old issue, but one that reminds voters of Clinton's first controversial decision, his lack of sce and ties to the lifestyle left.

Purveyors of mainstream (read: anti-family) culture, "Left" Coast starts and studio execs are also major financial backers of the Clinton effort. An easy skirmish in the culture war.

Here's a thought for moderate Republicans put off by Newt: a Clinton re-election could produce a Democratic congress run by Gephardt, a traditional liberal legislator.

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