The War Room Drill

IN 1988 MICHAEL DUKAKIS FATALLY STALLED after the convention; in 1992 Bill Clinton and Al Gore turned themselves into two very lively boys on the bus. The day after the Democrats broke camp in New York, they put Bonnie Raitt on their sound system and drove deep into smalltown America. The route offered 1,000 miles of getting-to-know-you time against a backdrop of irresistible photo ops: those three guys out in a field with a giant Clinton-Gore banner draped across their combine, that family on the front yard in lawn chairs, the kids waving sparklers. At stop after stop, Gore would step out and warm up the crowds. Hillary and Tipper would hug like sorority sisters. Then Clinton would bend into his People First stump speech. In Vandalia, Ill., the old state capital where Abraham Lincoln once served, 10,000 people lit candles and sang "God Bless America." A bit calculated? As Clinton, a Lincoln buff, liked to say, even Honest Abe was one of our more calculating presidents.

An unmistakable synergy enlivened the ticket. Gore, normally disciplined but wooden on his feet, began to lighten up; Clinton, sometimes a rambler, started to buckle down. The retooled message of change versus more of the same appeared to be taking hold, and the mood aboard the bus was euphoric. The convention had helped put to rest the image of Slick Willie. Now Stan Greenberg discovered an unexpected bonus. People were beginning to say that Clinton was an average guy, somebody who might be good for them and for the economy. When Greenberg ran tests on Clintons People First approach, he found that it scored three times higher than Bush's attacks on Clinton as a tax-and-spend liberal.

In Little Rock, James Carville now organized what he called the War Room to bring the battle to the president. THE ECONOMY, STUPID, read the sign he posted to remind everyone that nothing else was more important in their daily war games. Three chattering TV sets, a wire-service machine, copying gear and computers gave the War Room its combat hum. Day and night, Carville's operatives tracked everything Bush and his surrogates said. Each morning at 6:45, Carville arrived in his T shirt and jeans and a worn fatigue coat marked SEABEES. He ran the War Room like a drill sergeant, bellowing, "Run, don't walk" and "I'm going to be irritated all day" and "I am about to erupt" at his young recruits.

The crucial job of assembling Clinton's TV ads went to Mandy Grunwald. The Clintons insisted that she lead the advertising strategy. Tall, tough, funny, she had spun up "The Comeback Kid" to cover Clinton's limping exit from New Hampshire and devised "the Arsenio Strategy" to portray him as an unconventional Democrat. Now she gathered a creative team of hot political consultants and Madison Avenue wizards in Washington for a meeting with Carville, Greenberg and George Stephanopoulos to plan for the fall. She offered four main premises:

"This campaign must be focused on George Bush and the country's problems, not on Bill Clinton.

"That does not mean this should be a 'doom-and-gloom campaign'; in fact, hope is a critical part of our message.

"But it does mean our advertising must [force] people to focus on the choice in this election as we define it.

"We must not allow the Bush campaign to discredit Clinton to the point where he is disqualified as an alternative to Bush."

Carville said they had to be careful not to look too political or slick. "Watch the 'plaid' problem," he reminded them: anything that made Clinton look like he was offering everything to everyone would be a disaster. "The advertising," he concluded, "should always come back to 'We can't afford four more years of Bush'."

Grunwald distributed assignments to her team. They would cut straight positive ads on Clinton, spots comparing his assets with Bush's liabilities, response ads to counter incoming negatives. They would also have their own negative spots. One, dreamed up by Carter Eskew, a Washington pro, showed a full-screen close-up of the president's mouth saying "Read my lips." "Remember?" asks the announcer. Reminding everyone of the Bush promise that people would be better off in four years if he became president, the announcer says, "It's four years later. How're you doing?" Tests showed that the spot zoomed off the charts. But they decided to begin with a five-day, $1.2 million campaign on Clinton's ideas about economic change. "All the research shows we have to go positive," Stephanopoulos said. "Voters are just starved for information."

By midsummer, Clinton had turned himself into the odds-on favorite for the fall. In late July, Greenberg took a three-day national poll. Mano a mano, Clinton led Bush 56-34. Only two out of 10 voters now said he was "too slick." As a "steady" leader, he was running ahead of Bush 65-59. Six out of 10 voters said Clinton "shared their values," a 22-point bump upward since April. He also scored strongly on education, health care, protecting the environment, creating jobs and breaking the gridlock in Washington. Voters thought he had an economic plan; they suspected that Bush didn't. Clinton even scored higher than the president on family values. "OK, I'm framing this," Greenberg said when he saw the numbers. "It can't get better than this."

With the Dukakis trauma still fresh, however, Clinton strategists knew it was vital to protect Clinton's lead during the three weeks before the Republican convention. Greenberg and Grunwald used focus groups to test the sort of negative material they imagined the Bush camp might cook up; from scripts leaked to them by a friendly Republican source, they later produced and tested negative spots attacking Clinton. In one poll he was painted as a liberal in a moderate's disguise: in Arkansas he had raised taxes 128 times, even taxing groceries. He had proposed raising federal taxes and increasing federal spending by $220 billion. He had refused to serve his country in time of war, yet wanted to double cuts in defense spending. He supported condom distribution in the public schools, gay rights and abortion on demand. The final message: "He is just too liberal for average Americans."

Taking no chances, the campaign also tested ad lines that Clinton could use to neutralize Bush's attacks. If Bush said Clinton was a waffler who tried to be all things to all people, Clinton could point to Bush's own flip-flops on taxes and his posturing as the environment and education president. But the best defense, they found, was simply to say, "This is just more of the same old 'read my lips,' 'Willie Horton' type politics. Instead of doing anything about the real problems facing this country, like the economy and health care, George Bush would rather sling mud." With six of 10 voters, this line neutralized the Slick Willie image and fears about higher taxes.

Still, when Greenberg brought his data to the War Room, it made everyone feel uneasy. "If we were running against Clinton, I could find a strategy in this data," the pollster said. He wrote a mock strategy memo in the voice of Bush's man, Bob Teeter, to make his point. Six out of 10 voters thought calling Bush a "failed" president went too far. Clinton was vulnerable on his Arkansas record. Bush could maul Clinton on trust if Jim Baker could figure out how. The success of Clinton's bus trip was deceptive. "Momentum is not message," said Grunwald. "Mandy, that is a home-run point," agreed Carville. If the campaign lost its focus, Bush could still blow them away.

Clinton returned to Little Rock in orbit after 40,000 people turned out to meet the bus in St. Louis. The War Room moved quickly to bring him down to earth. The candidate's lead over Bush had slipped seven points since the convention high. "It's the souffle settling," said Grunwald. To shake everyone up, Carville did one of his eruptions. "Some of you think Republicans are just like us, that they just have a different philosophy," he said. "They are not. They are seasoned. They are ruthless. They are rotten."

For the handlers, the challenge was to persuade Clinton to talk more like a populist than he really wanted to; he had gone into the campaign believing that populism equals the failed liberalism of the old Democratic Party. They wanted him to play up his lines about investing in people and defending the middle class. That way they could score more strongly on the economy and connect with the discontent reflected by the appeal of Perot and of Brown. Clinton wouldn't have to change any of his policies or positions; all he had to do was shift his emphasis. As it was, the staff worried that he was letting his large crowds make him too cocky. His discipline was slipping, he was going soft in his economic focus.

"The populist stuff is the booster rocket," Grunwald pointed out. "We're not talking about turning him into Jerry Brown or Tom Harkin, but a strong populist edge is what he needs."

GINGERLY, THEY TOOK THE WAR ROOM CONSENSUS to the candidate. He listened to their populist pitch, and next day he was hitting their applause lines hard. One elderly couple who got up at 4 a.m. and drove four hours to join the crowds in Spokane, Wash., listened as he said, "I believe you are here because you want your country back." That would be a country with better schools and affordable health care for everybody, not a place where the rich controlled 90 percent of the wealth and the middle class declined. Just before dusk, he was in a Seattle hotel suite, his shirt dark with sweat, wondering at the October crowds in July. "It's an awesome responsibility," he said. "I just hope we can keep it up."

When Bush moved Jim Baker from the State Department to the White House, the War Room went to battle stations. Baker was a g-ut fighter with the face of a deacon. One major worry was that Bush might make an early move to jettison his economic advisers and dump Vice President Dan Quayle, a signal that he was capable of genuine change. But Bush kept Quayle and waited too long to alter his economic team. The jitters passed.

Carville knew the Republicans meant to play hardball at their convention. He ordered the War Room to be ready to answer every line of the keynote address within an hour. A friendly reporter faxed an advance copy of Pat Buchanans Culture Wars speech on liberals, gays and feminists, particularly Hillary Clinton. "Do they talk problems?" Carville muttered. "No! They attack the spouse." And Carville exulted when he watched Bush, on CNN, saying that he wanted to debate but he would leave the details to his staff. "The wimp," he shouted. "He wants Jim Baker to negotiate for him. My debate thing worked."

Carville had laid a crafty little trap for the Republicans right after the Democratic convention. When he learned that the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates had worked up the dates, places and format for the fall, he had Clinton immediately accept them. Among other things, the commission wanted a single questioner; Bush preferred a panel of reporters, a format likely to elicit plenty of questions for Clinton on the draft. Bush was stalling, confident that Baker would secure him the best possible deal. As a matter of fact, Clinton also was stalling: in late September the Clinton staff, eager to cruise to victory without taking undue risks, was almost unanimously opposed to the debates. But Bush took all the public blame for the delay.

On the last day of the GOP convention, Carville double-timed into the War Room. "Up on tippy-toes tonight," he ordered his grunts. He scanned an advance text of Bush's acceptance speech and ordered up the party line: "This makes 'Read my lips' look responsible. He's trying to buy the election." As Bush was just getting underway, Carville yelled impatiently: "Have we got a tax hit?" A corporal scurried off to get the American Association of Retired Persons honking about the danger of a cut in social security. Nearby, Stephanopoulos phoned a Washington Post reporter to check on the first media vibrations. "Pretty good," he mumbled, hanging up. "What did he say?" Carville called out. "Bush is going to get killed on the economics," Stephanopoulos replied. "He's going to have a great night tonight and a world of hurt for the next two months."

Carville looked out over the War Room. "I want to put pressure on that it's all gimmicks, it's all bullshit," he said. The idea was to force Bush to limp out of the convention with reporters demanding to know how he was going to pay for all he promised. "Count up anything that costs money," Carville shouted. "The tax cut, health care-wire the economists. The more experts the better. Bush didn't promise the moon, he promised the universe."

Then there was Bush's attack on a draft dodger's ability to serve as commander in chief. "Very ugly, effective ugly," said Greenberg. Over a drink later that night, Carville conceded that Bush had done a good job. "We've got to turn this thing back," he said. "El pronto."

Greenberg's preliminary scan showed that Bush had bounced up to within six points of Clinton, 50-44; but Clinton's favorable ratings had stayed put at 51 percent. Unlike the Republicans, Clinton would not have to go nuclear-negative early. "Boy, the War Room worked last night," said Stephanopoulos. "That's our reason for not panicking," said Carville. "We're up and running. We're ready."

In testing the convention bounce, Greenberg discovered another surprise: the mugging of Hillary Clinton by Pat Buchanan and others had not worked; her favorable ratings had gone up. "The Republicans did for us what we could never have done," said one Clinton staffer. "They made her a sympathetic figure." This was not an easy transformation. Privately, Hillary admitted that she had not been fully prepared for the upward transit to national politics, and she turned to an informal group of friends and advisers for help. A costume consultant from "Designing Women" helped her pick a less austere wardrobe. She dropped her head-bands, cut her hair in an easy-care style. Feminists sneered that she was selling out. Actually, she told friends, she was enjoying herself, though she did have second thoughts about cutting her hair. "Part of her in some ways doesn't know 'who I am' anymore," guessed an associate. "She's suppressing part of herself, and she's getting hit in the press no matter what she does."

By Sept. 22, Greenberg was reporting to the War Room that Clinton had "a pretty stable" lead of 12 points. But the numbers were deceptive. The enormous support he enjoyed in California, New York and the Northeast gave him a total that glossed over his vulnerabilities elsewhere. Doubts about the draft could still hurt them. "The potential of Slick Willie to explode is always under the surface," said one top adviser. "That's the problem with the draft, and the Bush people have obviously figured it out-and are heading our way.

Clinton realized that he had underestimated and mishandled the draft issue from the start. When the original Wall Street Journal story came out in February, 'I was floored-just floored," he said-and he was vague when asked about it. It was difficult to believe that he had simply forgotten the details. Clinton's memory had always been very sharp: he could still recite the phone number of his friend David Leopoulos when they were 9 years old. But, he said wanly, "facts do slip away," particularly "when you are under a lot of stress." His draft record had first come up in 1974, when he ran (unsuccessfully) for Congress against the ranking Republican on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, then again in 1978, when he ran for governor. To show he had nothing to hide, Clinton himself had sent reporters to talk to Col. Eugene Holmes, head of the ROTC program; Holmes said he couldn't remember all the details, but added that if any wrongdoing had taken place, it would have stuck in his mind. Now, Clinton said, he suspected that someone had "refreshed" the old man's memory "in a way that was just flat-out wrong." This suggested a dirty trick, though Clinton couldn't prove it.

The whole episode made him fee awful. He had opposed the war and made no secret of the fact that he didn't want to go. But his youthful principles were clearly at odds with some of his gut emotions. "I was raised on John Wayne movies," he said. "I had always wanted to see myself fighting for my country." At Oxford, his uneasiness had grown. "There were people over there dying while I was in England," he added. "It was very painful to have all that stuff brought back up." But the Republicans, sensing blood, had no intention of letting the past fade away.

Only two people in the campaign knew all there was to know about Clinton and the draft: the candidate himself and Betsey Wright, a highly strung woman whose relationship with Clinton was an enigma to the staff. Between 1983 and 1990, Wright had been the governor's chief of staff in Little Rock; she had left after the two concluded that their working relationship was on the rocks. Legislators disliked her, and Clinton was vexed by her tight, compartmentalized style of managing his office. Her departure was described by one aide as the equivalent of a professional "divorce." But she rejoined Clinton when he decided to run for president. Wright was the custodian of Clinton's record as governor, and she also assumed total control over the draft story. Staffers thought she trusted no one and was reluctant to share information with Clinton's top aides and closest friends; but sometimes her mood appeared to shift and she would talk compulsively about the draft to reporters.

Her emotions sometimes got the better of her. During one early rehearsal for the fall debates, she mysteriously burst into tears, and a bystander, who considered these incidents bizarre, said, "We were in hyperspace. We were on the Bridge of the Enterprise." Clinton always supported her, explaining that he felt grateful for loyal work in Arkansas. She worked relentlessly to squelch damaging stories or potential scandals, but some aides worried that her unpredictability might damage the candidate. Wright found Clinton's draft induction notice after the candidate promised to search his files and release all pertinent information. He had said that the notice had arrived in England by surface mail after the day scheduled for his induction; he added that he had been instructed to disregard the notice and to clear up the matter when he returned to Arkansas. Despite his promise, Clinton chose not to release the draft notice; some staffers wondered whether the date on the document perhaps did not square with his earlier account. The draft issue would haunt him all the way through the debates. And Wright came to be seen as the keeper of his skeletons. "She's got her finger on the button," said one aide. "If he takes her down, she takes him down. It's Mutually Assured Destruction."

Fortunately for the candidate, the evidence from behind Greenberg's one-way mirrors suggested that the draft was an issue Clinton could surmount. In focus groups, many people indicated that they thought he had been evasive or had even lied, but they said that wouldn't affect their vote. Clinton himself found Bush's tax ads more dangerous. When Bush suggested that People First economics would mean higher taxes for everyone who made more than $36,000 a year, Clinton blew up. "We've got to say he made it up," the candidate told the staff. "Why?" asked Paul Begala. "People like you. They want to vote for you. They're at the altar and the minister is asking, 'Any objections?' and Bush is in the back waving his arms. They need to be reassured that you're not wild, not crazy."

But the candidate was not assuaged. "I want to put a fist halfway down their throats with this," Clinton replied. "I don't want subtlety. I want their teeth on the sidewalk." He called the ad "one of the most totally irresponsible in presidential politics." The spot reminded him of the sharply negative campaign that had helped produce an upset re-election for Britain's Conservative Prime Minister John Major. Now Clinton suspected that Major's people were offering Bush advice.

But the October Surprise turned out to be the Second Coming of Ross Perot. As the rumors of Perot's re-entry gathered, Greenberg restudied the electoral map. He thought Perot would probably hurt Clinton most in states like California, where his lead was large enough to absorb the damage. And Perot would nettle Bush in Texas and Florida, where the president couldn't afford too much irritation. On Oct. 1, Clinton and his team were on the road in Milwaukee when Perot made his announcement. Everyone but Clinton gathered around a television set in a hotel bedroom. Clinton didn't watch. He sat off in an alcove signing pictures of himself. Ross wasn't the man to beat.