Shortly before the Democratic National Convention, PR sage Lee Levitt proclaimed that Edelman vice chairman Leslie Dach’s joining the campaign was the ’first sensible PR-professional move made by the Democrats in this election.’ A Democrat frustrated by Gore’s inability to sound a winning message, Levitt says his party lacks a ’cadre of strategic-level PR professionals to draw upon in election years.’
Shortly before the Democratic National Convention, PR sage Lee
Levitt proclaimed that Edelman vice chairman Leslie Dach’s joining the
campaign was the ’first sensible PR-professional move made by the
Democrats in this election.’ A Democrat frustrated by Gore’s inability
to sound a winning message, Levitt says his party lacks a ’cadre of
strategic-level PR professionals to draw upon in election years.’
Now that the convention is over, Levitt’s comments invite even more
Is Gore’s campaign devoid of savvy PR counsel? What problems are
confronting the team? And what will he have to do to overtake Gov.
George W. Bush?
Levitt’s remedy is simple: hire a PR pro. Since a major PR firm would
never involve itself in a partisan race, there are two solutions. The
first, as in the case of Dach, is to ’borrow’ one for a limited
The second is a solo pro.
Joe Napolitan, president of Napolitan Associates and a strategist on
Hubert Humphrey’s near-successful 1968 presidential campaign, says
’there are some excellent PR professionals’ who could be useful to Gore.
’But not many of them are willing to give up four or five months of
their lives to work in an election to the exclusion of their other
One who has done so is Gore’s deputy campaign manager for
communications, Mark Fabiani, who’s on leave from his work as a crisis
A Harvard-trained lawyer who worked on crafting the Clinton White
House’s responses to scandals such as Whitewater and Travelgate, Fabiani
made an immediate impression on the Beltway press corps. The Washington
Post had suggested that Gore, stung by the reaction to his statements
over the Elian Gonzalez case and the campaign finance controversy, was
avoiding the press. But soon after Fabiani’s arrival, Gore became more
Dach credits Fabiani with ’doing a great job as a primary spokesman to
the media as well as understanding the media’s interests.’ In Dach’s
view, Fabiani possesses a sixth sense to anticipate where the news media
is heading and how to take advantage of it.
’Earned media in a presidential campaign is critical,’ says Dach, who
will serve as an informal advisor to the campaign this fall. One area
where Fabiani’s handiwork is apparent is in laying out Gore’s game plan
to the news media. ’That allows the media to frame the day’s events for
the voters in a much more meaningful way,’ explains Dach.
But GOP and Democrats alike say the problem with the Gore campaign is
not a lack of counsel but an overabundance of it. ’Gore may be receiving
too much advice from consultants, much of it undoubtedly contradictory,’
Napolitan suggests. On the other hand, Bush’s campaign has vested great
authority in the ’Iron Triangle’ of chief strategist Karl Rove, campaign
manager Joe Allbaugh and communications director Karen Hughes.
Dick Minard, deputy GM for Hill & Knowlton in DC, asserts staffing and
management of campaigns often reflect the candidate’s personality.
’Problems inside the campaign often go directly to the candidate,’ he
Washington Post writer David Maraniss agrees there is a difference in
managerial style between the Bush and Gore campaigns. In Gore’s case,
’part of it is a reflection of the way Al Gore’s mind works. It’s not
instinctive or intuitive. It’s not necessarily the best to put together
a staff or find a message,’ says Maraniss, co-author with fellow Post
writer Ellen Nakashima of The Prince of Tennessee: The Rise of Al
Even with the new management offered by former Commerce Secretary Bill
Daley, Gore’s campaign is still said to be faction-ridden. But the
problems confronting Gore run well beyond the simple fault line of
consultants versus politicos.
The constant focus over the past few years on the campaign finance
scandals and the impeachment affair also prevented the construction of a
long-term strategy, and Gore’s rancorous primary battle with Bill
Bradley didn’t help. As GOP consultant Jim Innocenzi notes, ’The problem
with long-range planning in politics is that everything goes in the
toilet once you are on the receiving end of an unanticipated attack or
Hamilton College professor of government Phil Klinkner argues that most
campaigns are disorganized, ’but when the campaign is behind, you tend
to get lots of stories about the internal problems.’
Unlike the GOP, the Democrats have been less willing to gloss over
Gore’s choice of Joseph Lieberman as VP was a message to moderate swing
voters that Gore is his own man, as the Connecticut Democrat had rebuked
President Clinton for his conduct in the Lewinsky affair. Gore and
Lieberman do not see eye-to-eye on several issues, however.
There has also been criticism that Gore’s acceptance speech played
better in the convention hall than to the television audience. Dach
disagrees, pointing to pre- and post-convention polls showing Gore
moving from a 16-point deficit to a dead heat with Bush.
Pollster Chris Wilson, COO and president of Shandwick research firm SWR
Worldwide, says Bush had the luxury of using his convention to reach out
to the middle. ’Bush has a head start for middle-ground voters,’ he
says. Meanwhile, Democrats were more open about airing their
disagreements, which Wilson attributes to their being in power.
So what must Gore do to win? In his convention speech, Gore admitted he
was not ’exciting’ but promised to get the job done. It was a brave
admission of one of his weaknesses - a perceived lack of ’personality.’
But many PR experts see the contest really being determined more by
personalities than issues.
’Personality is the battleground with undecided voters,’ says GOP
consultant Fred Davis of LA-based Strategic Perception. Napolitan adds,
’The likability factor should not be underestimated. There is no really
divisive issue in this campaign and when this is the case people often
vote for the candidate they like.’
Davis sees the wonkish Gore as a ’more substance, less style’
He is trying to become more comfortable with a more outgoing style that
Davis thinks is being urged on him by advisors, but it’s a struggle. ’He
needs to keep working to make it more natural,’ stresses Davis, who also
sees Gore’s daughters playing a crucial role in this effort.
Napolitan concurs, but thinks Gore should listen less to what others
say: ’I’d tell him to chill out, calm down and just be himself.’ He says
Gore should stick to issues the Democrats own - health care, Social
Security and education.
Adds Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway, ’The objective is to create
opportunities to let Al Gore speak directly to voters on the issues that
matter in ordinary life. People are looking for a leader who will fight
for their interests, not necessarily (one) to have a beer with.’