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How A Murderer And Rapist Became The Bush Campaign's Most Valuable Player

November 11, 1990|By ROGER SIMON | ROGER SIMON,Roger Simon is a nationally syndicated columnist for The Sun. This excerpt is from his new book, "Road Show," published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Copyright 1990 by Roger Simon. Reprinted with permission.

Bush had retreated to his home in Kennebunkport, Maine, tpowwow with his top advisers over the Memorial Day weekend. But few of his top advisers seemed to be around. Bush was around (he greeted reporters on Memorial Day with a cheery "Happy Veterans Day!" and nobody bothered to correct him), but where were the important people? "Where's Teeter? [Robert Teeter, Bush's pollster]" David Hoffman, a ferociously tenacious reporter for the Washington Post, kept asking people. "Where's Lee? Where is everybody?"

EVERYBODY WAS HUDDLED AT Amodernistic white-sided, black-windowed office building off a shopping strip in Paramus, N.J., about a dozen miles from Manhattan. A marketing company hired by the Bush campaign had assembled two groups of people in a conference room. The people were being paid $30 apiece to sit in comfortable blue-backed chairs around a round ++ wooden conference table for 90 minutes. They had been carefully selected.

"They all had voted for Reagan last time," Roger Ailes explaine later, "but they said they were going to vote for Dukakis this time. They were lower-white-collar, upper-blue-collar types. And they were not going to vote for George Bush. We were trying to determine why." The people were white, largely Catholic, over 25 years of age and making more than $40,000 per year.

They were swing voters, those people who swung back and forth between one party and another and determined the outcome of elections. (Some campaign strategists feel that each party has a base of 41 percent of the vote and the real election is a battle for the remaining 18 percent.) These particular swing voters were, in campaign terminology, "Joe Six-Pack" voters: white, urban and ethnic.

Republican consultant Stuart Spencer had identified a "Mediterranean tilt" among swing voters in general. Many swing voters were Catholic, many were Italians, and while they had supported Ronald Reagan in the past, they could be expected to feel a certain affinity for the "ethnic" Dukakis. So the Bush campaign wanted to know what it would take to swing these swing voters away from Dukakis and toward George Bush.

On one wall of the focus-group room was a huge two-way mirrorThe participants were told they were being watched, but they could hardly have missed it anyway: The mirror was the size of a small movie screen. Behind it were Atwater and Ailes; Robert Teeter, Bush's pollster; Craig Fuller, Bush's chief of staff; and Nicholas Brady, Bush's senior adviser. They sat in upholstered white-backed chairs and watched through the mirror as the moderator began to tell the story of Willie Horton to the group. And then he told them about Dukakis and his veto of the Pledge of Allegiance bill. And then about his opposition to prayer in the schools and to capital punishment.

Some of the people reacted with outrage; almost all reacted with surprise. They had not known these things about Dukakis. They hadn't realized, until the moderator told them, how liberal Dukakis really was. And they sure hadn't heard about furloughs and how he let that guy out of jail.

At the beginning of the focus groups, all had been Dukakisupporters. By the end of the evening, about half had switched to Bush.

"Basically, their mouths fell open," Debra Vandenbussche, icharge of interactive group research for Market Opinion Research, said. "They were appalled that he would let first-degree murderers out on furlough. There was some real strong reaction. In that hour and a half we ended up switching as many as half the voters from Dukakis voters to Bush voters."

Behind the mirror, just about all the Bush aides were impressedThe reactions of the Paramus focus groups were taped and brought back to Kennebunkport for Bush.

ROGER AILES WAS PRETTY MUCHalone in his opposition to focus groups. A focus group, he said, "is five professionals in a room who say: 'We don't know what to do, so let's get 20 amateurs to tell us what to do.' " Even so, the Bush campaign used focus groups for everything, including testing Ailes' commercials.

The data from the focus groups told the Bush handlers that the furlough issue was especially potent with women. Home invasion and rape were subjects that could be expected to outrage women. And women were exactly the voters Bush needed; this could wipe out his gender gap.

Atwater could barely believe his good luck. If the Bush campaign needed Bubba and Joe Six-Pack and women, the furlough issue was one good way to get them all. Willie Horton was going to be 191 pounds of rompin', stompin' dynamite.

The Bush campaign had found its poster boy.

ON JUNE 9, AT THE TEXAS REpublican state convention in Houston, Bush officially launched his negative campaign against Michael Dukakis. Though there were to be pauses in it, it would continue to election day.

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