Don't Look Now

DURING THE SPRING AND SUMMER, WHENEVER THE NEWS MEDIA began to question him about the state of the campaign, Dole would shrug dismissively. The polls don't mean much, he would say. There's still plenty of time. Voters don't start paying attention until Labor Day. Dole had long since learned the virtue of patience; he preferred to bide his time, keep his options open, decide only when absolutely necessary. It was a good posture for a legislator, but not for a presidential candidate trailing by 15 points in the polls.

Labor Day came and went with the Dole campaign still floundering in search of a clear message. After the GOP convention, voters knew him better; no longer did a sizable minority think he was an heir to the Dole pineapple fortune, as one GOP poll had discovered earlier that spring. But voters were skeptical of Dole's tax-cut pledge, and the campaign had done nothing to build momentum since San Diego.

If the campaign could not persuade voters to be for Bob Dole, then it was necessary to persuade them to be against Bill Clinton. But going negative held real risks. Well aware of his hatchet-man reputation, Dole did not wish to fulfill expectations by reprising the role of Mean Bob. The very swing voters he sought to reach--moderate middle-class women, the so-called soccer moms--hated negative campaigning. And so, as the ""real'' campaign began in September, Dole was faced with a dilemma: how to attack without offending? Solving this riddle would have taken a very adroit candidate backed by a shrewd strategist. The Dole campaign had neither.

At Dole headquarters, infighting and paranoia prevailed. Dole's campaign manager, Scott Reed, was not a strategist. The former windsurfing instructor had no illusions about his analytical ability or long-range vision. He was as amiable and seemingly uncomplicated as Dick Morris was calculating. He wasn't even a particularly good manager. The Dole campaign seemed to have more than its share of gaffes and glitches, from last-minute scheduling snafus to the appalling sight of Dole plunging headfirst off a stage because an advance man had failed to nail down the railing.

Don Sipple, the image maker brought in to replace Bill Lacy as campaign strategist after the February purge, hadn't much use for Reed, and Reed's allies called Sipple ""the brat'' behind his back. In June Sipple had distanced himself from the campaign hierarchy, setting up a separate company, New Century Media, to produce Dole's ads. Sipple's partner, Mike Murphy, thought most of the Dole staff were minor-leaguers. ""God, they're idiots,'' he groused to Sipple. He was especially disdainful of John Buckley, the campaign's communications director, for courting the ""Beltway echo media.'' Murphy wanted to take over the campaign communications shop himself. Before San Diego, Murphy wrote a memo he entitled ""Murphy: Let's Win the Election.'' In a list of ""what to do,'' he wrote: ""Fire some people after the convention.'' He had Buckley in mind.

For all their bravado, Sipple and Murphy didn't have much to show in the way of effective ads. The campaign had no money to buy air time, and little agreement on what to say. Dole's formal nomination in San Diego finally freed up $62 million in federal funds, but the image makers quickly fell to squabbling over the right message. Obviously, the campaign had to sell Dole's 15 percent tax cut. But Dole's pollster, Tony Fabrizio, insisted that the ad include a line about balancing the budget as well. Sipple hated that idea. Don't muddy up the message, he argued. Murphy, who had successfully sold tax-cut messages for two governors, Engler of Michigan and Whitman of New Jersey, thought the selling psychology was all wrong. It was like putting a fat guy in a Diet Coke ad. ""Shoving these two somewhat conflicting messages together in a 30-second unit is telling them not to believe us,'' Murphy warned Reed.

AT THE SAME TIME, REED AND Fabrizio were frustrated by their lack of control over Sipple and Murphy. Reed complained that he would get a script and order some changes, only to learn that Sipple and Murphy were already at the studio cutting the spot. He was also fed up with Sipple's standoffish manner; Sipple wasn't engaged in the campaign.

On Sept. 4, Reed called Sipple into his office. New Century's contract was being terminated, he said. The two men could still make ads, but they had to work directly for the Dole campaign.

""We need to have it all in one tent,'' said Reed.

""Why?'' asked Sipple. ""We're only down the hall.''

""There are barriers.''

""What are you talking about?''

There wasn't enough ""integration'' and ""communication,'' said Reed. Sipple said he'd think about it, but he didn't have to think very hard. He and Murphy knew that this was all about control, and they were about to lose what little they had left. He and Murphy decided to leave.

But the real problem was not Reed or Sipple or Murphy, or the others who had come before or would come later. The problem was Bob Dole. He was a poor boss. There was, in Washington, a large alumni association of former Dole aides who all told the same story. Dole was a good man, but he was difficult to work for. He was mysterious and uncommunicative, often biting and rarely encouraging. He almost never told anyone everything that he was thinking. They had to guess, searching his countenance for a hint. When John Buckley was arguing with Murphy over when to announce the economic plan, each one believed Dole was signaling him that he agreed (Buckley thought he had caught Dole nodding at him; Murphy thought he saw Dole wink). When Dole was angry, he could be equally indirect. His gaze was like a laser, but it was often aimed at the per- son just next to the person he was really mad at. Thus, when he was angry at Sipple for making a lackluster convention video (""That was a total failure,'' he growled), Dole looked at Tony Fabrizio and political director Jill Hanson, who were sitting next to the real target.

Dole would often assign different staffers to do the same job, without telling them. He liked to have competing power centers in the campaign and would play one against the other. He knew, for instance, that Reed would often sit on Sipple and Murphy's advice. So Dole would summon the two admen himself, usually on some pretense, and then invite them to second-guess the campaign manager. During the convention, Dole called the pair up to his sunbathing perch on the roof of the Hyatt, ostensibly to ask them what tie he should wear for his acceptance speech (Dole is colorblind). But he also had a more significant question: the staff wanted Jack Kemp to stay behind in California after the convention and campaign alone. What did Sipple and Murphy think of that? Bad idea, they both said. Kemp was dangerous on his own. He was on the wrong side of two wedge issues in California, affirmative action and immigration. Dole needed to be with Kemp to keep him under control, as well as to bond and show off the running mates as a team. Dole countermanded the travel plans.

Scott Reed could hardly be blamed for feeling a little insecure. Dole was, in effect, his own campaign manager. He didn't want to be ""handled'' like Ronald Reagan--or, for that matter, like almost any other modern candidate for high office. Dole listened to plenty of advice--too much, perhaps, from too many sources--but the really major decisions in the Dole campaign were made by Bob Dole. Alone.

In the Senate, Dole had been able to manage the heavy burden of majority leader--herding senators, shepherding bills, negotiating compromises--with the help of only a few staffers. He did it by working incredibly long hours, by listening, and by keeping it all in his head. But a presidential campaign cannot be a solo voyage. It is the ultimate endurance test, even with the best and most faithful staff. Lacking a strong staff, possessed of political instincts better suited to passing bills than electing presidents, Dole was adrift.

TO CELEBRATE THE LAUNCH OF the fall campaign and the success of the San Diego convention, the Dole campaign held a dinner at the Four Seasons, a Washington luxury hotel, on Sept. 7. The bonhomie was a little forced. The elder statesmen in attendance--among them former senators Howard Baker and Paul Laxalt and superlobbyist Bill Timmons--resented the fact that no one listened to their advice, and the campaign staffers thought the graybeards were meddlesome. At their regular monthly meeting just the day before, the Wise Men had been querulous and demanding. Why were there so few ads, and such weak ones? ""We've fired those people,'' answered Scott Reed, who hated these dog-and-pony shows. There was also tension between supply-siders and deficit hawks, between Senate staff and campaign staff, between Kempians and Doleites.

After the salmon and steak, Tom Korologos, Dole's old friend, tapped his wineglass. ""OK, now we're going to have speeches,'' he said in his gruff, jovial manner. There were loud boos. ""But the speeches are going to come from the next president of the United States,'' added Korologos.

""Jack Kemp,'' quipped Bob Dole. He was, as ever, mordant about his situation. On the stump, he liked to mention that Elizabeth, as head of the Red Cross, had visited many disaster areas, ""not including my campaign.'' Dole's dry humor masked his discomfort with the campaign's direction. He would have to go negative, he knew, not because he wanted to but because there was no place else to go.

The key to winning, according to the guru of negative campaigning, Arthur J. Finkelstein, is to ""polarize the electorate.'' Voters are confused and overwhelmed and usually bored. The trick is to find one issue that will make them pay attention, and then hammer away. Spending on political organization, Finkelstein believes, is a waste of money. Almost all campaign resources should go to negative or, as consultants prefer to say, ""comparative'' ads. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, an old client of Finkelstein's and a close adviser to Dole, strongly urged Dole to hire Finkelstein to run his campaign. But Finkelstein insisted on total control, and he was too malevolent for Dole's taste. The answer was no.

DOLE DIDN'T GET FINKELSTEIN, but he did get many of his most apt pupils. Pollster Fabrizio was an old protEgE. He was an early expert at identifying the ""peripheral urban ethnic'' vote--blue-collar Roman Catholics--and making them into Reagan Democrats by playing to fears of criminals, blacks and homosexuals. Like most Finkelstein alums, Fabrizio liked to posture as a bad boy. He taped his nickname, ""The Rat,'' onto his nameplate at Dole headquarters. Alex Castellanos, a cigar-smoking Cuban who was one of three admen brought in to replace Sipple and Murphy, also was proud of his Finkelstein heritage. ""Most of us think like him,'' he said of the Finkelstein progeny. ""Or at least we hope we do.'' As he came aboard in September, Castellanos was rubbing his hands at the prospect of design- ing an ad campaign aimed at the president, whom he referred to as ""Tubby.''

In his never-ending search for a campaign strategist, Scott Reed turned in late August to Paul Manafort, a hardball political consultant who had run the San Diego convention with an iron hand. Manafort's strategy boiled down to a single sentence that employed Finkelstein's favorite pejorative term: ""Clinton is a liberal.'' As Castellanos explained it, ""It's out of the old playbook. It's like what we did to [Jim] Hunt [who ran against Finkelstein's client Jesse Helms in 1984]. First we call him a liberal. And when he says, "No, I'm not,' great. Now you're a lying liberal, and we call him a liberal and a liar. That is how you ease into the character issue.''

Manafort emphasized that Dole would have to be ""razor-focused.'' For a while, Dole tried, growling ""liberal, liberal, liberal'' every time he mentioned Clinton on the stump. But the charge sounded tired to many voters and somewhat contrived, given the fact that for months the Dole campaign had stressed that Clinton was a waffler who stood for nothing. As she toured the country, Elizabeth Dole had mocked Clinton's ideological swings with a prop, a little rocking chair that rocked side to side instead of backward and forward. To describe Clinton now as a deep-down lefty did not ring true. Not even to the master himself: privately, Arthur Finkelstein disavowed the Dole campaign as a botch.

Actually, the Dole forces had the worst of both worlds: Finkelstein's cynical negativity without his focus and discipline. The campaign proved incapable of sticking with a consistent message, even one as blunt as ""Clinton is a liberal.'' Part of the problem was Dole. He seemed oddly passionless, as if he didn't really mean what he was saying. Voters could sense Dole's capacity for genuine rage; it lurked there, just beneath the surface. But he seemed to be going through the motions when he attacked Clinton. At times, he appeared to be winking to his audiences, signaling his sense of the absurdity of it all. At other times he just seemed sullen and insincere.

In early September, the disagreements over message bumped into a squabble over geography. For weeks, the staff had quarreled over the best places to focus Dole's time and money. Dole hated the idea of writing off any section of the country. But Manafort and Fabrizio argued persuasively that Dole was going to have to concentrate somewhere or risk losing everywhere. But which states? Fabrizio came up with two maps, a Western strategy and an Eastern strategy. If the campaign wanted to focus on California, it should go sharply negative. California voters are moved by hot-button issues like affirmative action and immigration. On the other hand, if Dole wanted to make headway in the East, in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Connecticut, he needed to win over the ""soccer moms'' who found him too harsh. That meant running positive ads stressing his trustworthiness. Go high road in the East or scorched earth in the West. It was a coin toss. Typically, Scott Reed hesitated. Instead, he ordered up a third map--a play-everywhere scenario.

THE DOLE CAMPAIGN WAS PARALYZED by more than geography. In August the campaign learned that two major news organizations--The Washington Post (owned by the same company that owns NEWSWEEK) and Time--had interviewed a woman who claimed to have had an extramarital affair with Dole in the late '60s, in the waning years of his marriage to his first wife. The campaign sent a lawyer, Doug Wurth, to talk to her. At a meeting at the Willard Hotel in early September, she told Wurth that the relationship had begun in 1968, when she was 35 and Dole was 44, and had ended after Dole's divorce in 1972. Wurth made no attempt to challenge the woman's story.

The prospect of such a news story was a source of growing uneasiness in the campaign. Disquiet turned to serious anxiety when Bob Woodward of The Washington Post called on Friday, Sept. 13, wanting to talk to Scott Reed and Nelson Warfield, the campaign press secretary, about the woman's story. Woodward was a legendary reporter, the man who had helped bring down Richard Nixon, and he had persuaded the woman to talk on the record.

Dole's advisers feared the story would wreck the campaign. ""It was a mortal threat,'' said one aide. The campaign was planning to stress the argument that Dole was more trustworthy than Clinton. ""It's the one thing we have--the fact that he is an upstanding guy with high morals.'' The woman's story, if published in the Post, ""wipes it all out,'' said this aide.

ON FRIDAY, SEPT. 20, Mari Will and Nelson Warfield went to the Post to meet with Woodward and the paper's top editor, Leonard Downie. Will and Warfield had good relations with Woodward; they had been major sources for his campaign book, "'The Choice.'' They made an impassioned case to the Post editors to hold the story. The alleged affair had happened 28 years ago in a dying marriage, they argued. Why bring up something so old? Was there no chance for redemption? The Post editors listened respectfully, but they gave no assurances. On ""Meet the Press'' back in January 1994, Dole himself had said that the personal lives of politicians--including marital infidelity--are "'fair game.'' Besides, hadn't the Dole campaign been claiming that Dole's character was superior to Clinton's? Dole's aides argued that they had been talking about public acts, not private ones. "'We never made the argument that Dole was a saint and Clinton was a sinner,'' said one aide.

Gloomily, the campaign began preparing for damage control. Dole had seemed baffled when his friend Bob Ellsworth first told him in late August that the woman was talking to the press. The relationship had not been "'that intense,'' said Dole. "'If this comes out it will be my word against hers.'' But denying the story would be hard. There was some talk of trying to pre-empt the Post by going public in an interview with some friendly and sympathetic TV reporter (Dole liked several, including CNN's Candy Crowley and NBC's Lisa Myers). An old rule of campaigning is to announce your own bad news. But communications director John Buckley argued that the campaign could not very well argue that the matter was irrelevant and then break the story itself.

A better response, the aides agreed, would be to wait for publication and then attack the Post for indulging in trash journalism. Campaign aides began making lists of people to rally if the story ran. They would gather senators willing to express outrage, and call on former presidents Bush and Ford to make statements of support. And they would have to phone Ralph Reed, Gary Bauer, Henry Hyde and other stalwarts of the religious right to make sure no one "'said anything stupid,'' as one aide put it. Aides scrutinized the travel schedules of Elizabeth Dole and Dole's daughter (by his first marriage), Robin, to make sure they would be available. One plan was to hold a press conference at the Watergate with them at his side. Dole would neither confirm nor deny the story, but rather castigate the press for wallowing in sleaze.

The staff braced for the story to appear in the Post on Sunday, Sept. 22. Dole himself had remained remarkably cheerful that week, even though he had made a baseball gaffe that placed him in an earlier generation (he referred to the ""Brooklyn Dodgers'') and plunged headlong off a reviewing stand in Chico, Calif., when a railing gave way. On Friday, The New York Times ran a story marveling at how ""calm, unflappable, even chipper'' the candidate remained in the face of pratfalls and low polls. But beneath the surface, Dole was beginning to boil.

Dole rarely lashed out when angry. Instead, he grew very, very quiet. On Sunday morning, as he flew to a rally in Illinois, Dole maintained an ominous silence as he read The Washington Post. The story was not the one the campaign feared but rather a story quoting anonymous aides as saying that Dole planned to write off Illinois. The story was embarrassing to Dole, who was on his way to pep up Illinois supporters, and untrue. The next morning, at the 10:30 staff meeting, Dole's ire spilled out. ""I don't know who the imbecile was who leaked this,'' he began in a cold, flat voice, glaring in the vicinity of Scott Reed. ""We must look like a bunch of idiots sitting around putting our strategy in the newspaper where Clinton can read it.'' Dole had long been angry about leaks. ""This campaign leaks like a sieve,'' he told a friend.

Dole was also sore about the campaign's handling of the debate negotiations. Dole had wanted four presidential debates, the last to be held as late as possible in the campaign. Instead, he had wound up with two, neither of them late. The campaign was so obsessed with the potential Post story that some advisers felt its negotiators had caved in quickly rather than try to bargain in the middle of a breaking scandal. Dole was mad, too, that he had been tagged with excluding Ross Perot. When staffers tried to soothe him, he would have none of it. ""Perot's not attacking you, he's attacking me,'' Dole told them.

Reed hastily adjourned the meeting, but word quickly spread through campaign headquarters, which was already buzzing with rumors about the coming Woodward article. Staffers close to Dole were convinced that Dole's real anger was not over leaks about strategy but rather the still-unpublished Post story. The story was expected to appear any day. Scott Reed made a new plea to Woodward: ""You guys have got to give us 24 hours' notice.'' Woodward asked why. ""I've got to get the candidate's wife and daughter ready for the fact that this may be in print,'' Reed explained. ""I understand,'' said Woodward, without making any promises. On Sept. 24, the campaign was told by a Post reporter that the story ""won't be tomorrow.'' The next day, the message was repeated. The following day Dole flew to his condo in Florida, to practice for his debates, but also to be cloistered in case the story broke. The staff figured there was a better chance of keeping the press at bay if Dole was in his 12th-floor condo rather than out on the stump.

DOLE BASKED IN THE SUN AND perused his briefing books, but he was distracted. Elizabeth was especially upset by the prospect of the Post's story. She called the paper's publisher, Donald Graham, to plead for restraint. But with her usual extraordinary discipline, she also filmed two 30-second spots that touted Dole's trustworthiness. In one, sitting in a yellow blouse and looking imploringly at the camera, she declared, ""Honesty, doing what's right, living up to his word ... Bob Dole doesn't make promises he can't keep.'' She was talking about his 15 percent tax cut, but the awkward circumstances hung heavily over the Dole staffers as they watched. In a second spot, she praised his small-town virtue: ""The truth. First, last, always the truth.''

In the Post's newsroom and executive offices on 15th Street in Washington, a fierce debate raged over the ethics of printing the story. Many of the reporters, including Woodward, wanted to publish. They argued that Dole had made trust and character an issue, and thus adultery, even from the distant past, was relevant. Most of the editors, however, accepted the distinction between public trust and private actions. The Post and its owners, the Graham family, did not want to get into the business of investigating the dalliances of presidential candidates.

By Thursday, Oct. 3, the Post had decided that it would be unfair to print the story just before the first debate, scheduled for that Sunday night. Informed by Woodward, the campaign was hugely relieved. Dole's staffers believed that the closer they got to the election, the harder it would be for the Post to publish such a sensational article. According to a close friend, Dole was finally able to push the story to the back of his mind.