CLIENT PROFILE: The NRCC does battle for the life of the party - With its slim majority threatened on the Hill, the National Republican Congressional Committee is shifting into high gear. Steve Lilienthal reports on the people behind the attacks

The vitriolic tone that marked the impeachment process on Capitol Hill is alive and well. And the National Republican Congressional Committee's communications division, under the leadership of Jim Wilkinson, the alternately confident and self-effacing 30-year-old director of marketing and communications, has done its part to keep it that way. It is Wilkinson's mission to communicate the GOP message as his party fights to maintain its majority status.

The vitriolic tone that marked the impeachment process on Capitol Hill is alive and well. And the National Republican Congressional Committee's communications division, under the leadership of Jim Wilkinson, the alternately confident and self-effacing 30-year-old director of marketing and communications, has done its part to keep it that way. It is Wilkinson's mission to communicate the GOP message as his party fights to maintain its majority status.

The vitriolic tone that marked the impeachment process on Capitol Hill is alive and well. And the National Republican Congressional Committee's communications division, under the leadership of Jim Wilkinson, the alternately confident and self-effacing 30-year-old director of marketing and communications, has done its part to keep it that way. It is Wilkinson's mission to communicate the GOP message as his party fights to maintain its majority status.

Wilkinson, a Naval Reserve public affairs officer, does his job with such intensity, it sometimes sounds as if North Vietnam's Gen. Giap, not House Majority Leader Dick Armey, was his former boss.

'When fighting the opponent, it's about wearing them down. The objective is not to beat your opponent but to make your opponent quit,' says Wilkinson.

When he took over in January, the GOP's chances of holding its majority in the House were generally discounted. But by mid-October, conventional wisdom held that the Republicans at least had a fighting chance.

Undoubtedly, two Democratic House members crossing ranks to join the GOP and the surprise defeat of Democratic New York Rep. Michael Forbes by an unknown in the primary have helped to drive that perception. But Wilkinson and the NRCC gets some credit too.

Former US Rep. Bill Paxon, who chaired the NRCC when the party seized control of the House back from the Democrats in 1994, speaks highly of the plan that Wilkinson put together: 'It was the most impressive communications plan for a committee that I've ever seen.'

Wilkinson says the plan was distinguished by its objectives for both the department and its staff members. Speaking of his staff, Wilkinson says 'they have to understand how their small part of the mission fits into the larger one.'



The front lines

The division does the usual dissemination of information to the DC press corps and the political press in congressional districts, concentrating on those three dozen or so that the NRCC considers crucial to determining control.

But Wilkinson is determined to beat the Democrats - and his nemesis, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) - to the punch.

'Wilkinson's team monitors what's said in the districts and figures out what needs to be seen and how it accrues to the benefit of the campaign in DC,' Paxon says. 'They also watch what the Democrats are doing and how they need to translate it to the district.' News analyst John Holly regularly monitors the news in key campaigns so he can report about it before the daily morning staff meeting.

Wilkinson handles some press calls, but press secretary Marit Babin estimates she spends three-quarters of her time on the phone talking to reporters both in DC and the congressional districts.

Other key team members include policy analyst Brad Bennett, who communicates the latest line on issues and how candidates should handle them. Carl Forti books GOP legislators on talk radio and updates the Web site. Recently his time has been spent serving as the liaison between NRCC researchers and media producers.

The attention paid to individual districts is important because the NRCC does not see this as a year in which there is a 'nationalization' of issues as in 1994. Each race is a contest unto itself, with its own set of issues.



Repairing internal rifts

There were two areas Wilkinson thought were important when he joined the NRCC after running the 'War Room' as Armey's press secretary during the 1999 budget negotiations: morale and internal communications.

Wilkinson takes pride in following the lead set forth by another newcomer, NRCC executive director Dan Matoon, in fostering a cooperative spirit.

He cites Eisenhower's leadership during World War II as a model, based on the former president's ability to get 'type A' personalities, such as General Patton and British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, to work together.

Wilkinson says the communications division and the political division 'did not speak to each other' outside formal meetings. 'It was like the Italians and Germans in World War II - allies but non-communicative.' So Wilkinson forged a closer working relationship with Terry Nelson, the NRCC's political director.

'I see our role as selling success and Terry Nelson is the one who creates that success,' says Wilkinson. 'I went to Terry Nelson, closed the door and said, 'Let's start over and build up.''

Now he and Nelson meet three or four times a week and have a regular morning briefing of through the political division to learn the latest goings on in campaigns.

Thus, NRCC political aide Dan Flynn came to Wilkinson when he wanted to draw attention to the 'desperation' in Democratic tactics. Wilkinson aide Tracy Young came up with the title for a series of e-mails called 'Desperate Democrats Do Desperate Things.'

The communications director e-mails these messages not just to the press but also to key Democrats and allies on K Street. So when the DCCC criticized former New Jersey Rep. Dick Zimmer for his record on breast cancer research, the NRCC took off. Zimmer's three sisters all had breast cancer and the DCCC singled out votes that were either procedural or involved larger issues, according to The Newark Star-Ledger.

The NRCC made sure the e-mail missive was sent out on a Sunday night announcing 'the desperate Dems are at it again' and including the Star-Ledger article in which Zimmer called the mailer 'A cheap shot.' The e-mail also recited past DCCC blunders in the district.

'We wanted Democrats to wake every day and get a reason why they would lose. Through the history of warfare, people under pressure are more likely to make bad decisions,' Wilkinson says.

Wilkinson's visualizations of demoralized Democratic Party officials and lobbyists may be driving himself and his division forward. He sees the angry e-mails he has received as proof that his missives are taking their toll. But whether the NRCC's work is breaking the Democratic will to fight is debatable.

Democratic fund-raiser Mike Fraioli says, 'I think they're wasting their time. I can't imagine what it is that they would possibly be sending that would change people's minds. I'd say the same thing if the Democrats were doing it.'

Roll Call political columnist Dr. Stuart Rothenberg says both the NRCC and its rival can be 'so intent on getting the message out that they both sound dopey at times.' Rothenberg insists the K Street crowd is smart enough to separate the spin from the realpolitik. Washington Post national political reporter Mike Allen does credit the NRCC with trying to be straight-shooters. 'Even if a story is not what they might dream of, they give you the facts that you need and don't dodge anything.'

Despite his warlike tactics, Wilkinson becomes guarded when it comes to predicting the results of the election this fall. 'If we lose, it won't be because we didn't get our message out,' he insists.



NRCC

PR staff: Director of marketing and comms, Jim Wilkinson; assistant to the director of marketing and comms, Tracy Young; deputy director of comms, Carl Forti; press secretary, Marit Babin; assistant to the press secretary, Lori Martin; policy analyst, Brad Bennett; videographer, Kevin Barbour; director of news analysis, Josh Holly; comms staff assistant, Ryika Hooshangi Comms division budget: over dollars 1 million

Vendor: Wade West (media training).



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