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Get Ready To Rumble

THE MEETING WAS ROUTINE, BUT the subject was not. When Newt Gingrich and his lieutenants paid their regular visit to Bob Dole's headquarters last week, NEWSWEEK has learned, they came to plot a novel piece of strategy: the Dick Morris subpoena. The story of Bill Clinton's fallen consultant had seemed too weird and "off message" to be of much use. But then the tabloids published more excerpts from the diary of Morris's alleged call girl. In them Morris is said to have blamed Hillary Rodham Clinton for the mass requisitioning of Republican FBI files. Suddenly it was Macarena time at Dole HQ. "The FBI-files issue cuts," enthused a top Dole aide. So it was agreed: Rep. William Clinger's Government Reform and Oversight Committee would invite Morris to explain-- under subpoena if necessary.

Whatever works, especially if it "cuts." Once again lagging badly in the polls, Bob Dole and his campaign are trying to shake themselves awake before it's truly too late. Dole's ad team of Don Sipple and Mike Murphy was let go, accused of the cardinal sin of making spots that weren't "tough" and "focused" enough. They were replaced by others known for producing the nastiest possible ads while ostensibly sticking to "issues." Campaign manager Scott Reed gave new power to a trio of hard-driving Washington lobbyists. Led by Paul Manafort, they came of age in politics as partners of the late Lee Atwater, the master of modern wedge politics.

A month ago Dole seemed to be a genuine threat to Bill Clinton. He'd unveiled an eye-catching economic plan, picked the bouncy Jack Kemp as his running mate, staged a smooth convention--and pulled within a few polling points of the president.

But since then nothing has worked. On the campaign trail, Dole wanders from this core message--tax cuts and trust--preferring to spend time acknowledging every minor GOP dignitary in the crowd. Riven by internal feuds, the campaign had aired only two ads, and Dole didn't like them. There was no plan in place to target key states. Meanwhile, Dole gave the White House an opening on Iraq, grousing about Clinton's "weak leadership" before slipping back into patriotic bipartisanship at the private urging of Colin Powell.

For its part, the Clinton campaign has been busy and, despite the Morris revelations, focused. Clinton-Gore went up in 20 states with a tough spot showing a shifty-eyed Dole hungry to "raise taxes" and "cut Medicare." In fact, Dole has voted to cut taxes more than to raise them--and wants to slow the growth of Medicare only slightly more than Clinton would. But the Dole camp's only response to the ad barrage was weak: it sent out a spokesman to complain the ad was "offensive."

Inside the campaign, Reed knew it was time to do something. His allies were Manafort, who had run the much-praised convention, and John Buckley, a longtime friend and the campaign's communications director. Of course, when a race is going badly it's never the candidate's fault. That's what consultants are for. Dole knows the drill. In 1988 he personally fired two top advisers, leaving them on the tarmac at a campaign stop.

This time Reed took the initiative. Dole was kept informed, and approved, but was out of town when Reed cleaned house. The chief fall guy was Sipple, a cool-mannered Californian. He and Murphy had tried to assume control of all "message" functions, but had been rebuffed by Reed and Buckley. It was duly noted that Sipple and Murphy had opposed two key moves: unveiling Dole's tax plan before the convention and picking Kemp. Sipple had another strike against him: word was he didn't want to become famous as a tough guy.

The new crew has no such fears. The campaign now is entirely in the hands of "Arthur's Boys." They are devotees of an unforgiving doctrine of political warfare they learned working with a legendary GOP consultant named Arthur Finkelstein. Alumni include Reed, Buckley, polltaker Tony Fabrizio, "oppo" adviser Roger Stone, direct-mail guru Steve Goldberg and new ad men Alex Castellanos and Chris Mottola. All have worked for Finkelstein's polling firm, or on campaigns he's run. Even Dole's debate negotiator, Carroll Campbell, was once a Finkelstein client, in South Carolina.

Reed and Dole know what they're getting. There's a Finkelstein method, and it will now be applied to the Dole campaign even though Finkelstein himself is busy running a host of Senate campaigns. Starting as a polltaker with Jesse Helms's first campaign in 1972, Finkelstein developed a simple set of principles. Focus on your opponent, not your own candidate. Use whatever shred of your foe's record you can find to brand him a "liberal." In advertising, use simply worded, Armageddon-style themes to raise the ideological stakes--and warn of the big-government chaos that will ensue if the other guy wins. Repeat the slogans ceaselessly, in ads and on the trail. Use phone banks to spread attacks you don't dare put on the air.

But an all-out attack strategy has its risks. In the language of the business, "predicates" must be laid. The first, Dole's aides concede, is a better explanation of Dole's economic plan. Then they must prove that Clinton is a closet "liberal," ready to come out of hiding in a second term. Dole must resist focusing on Clinton's character too much. "That's the race we ran in 1992, and we lost," said Manafort. But that may be easier said than done. For another one of Arthur's Boys is Dick Morris. Over the years he's told many of his consultant colleagues--including several members of the Dole team--that scandals will sink the Clinton presidency. Does he still think so? If Dole's men are really Arthur's Boys, they'll want to hear the answer--under oath.

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