No suspenders, but a GOP polish at Clinton national headquarters

August 28, 1992|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,Staff Writer

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Paul Sullivan, a veteran of Democratic presidential campaigns going back to George McGovern's in 1972, looked around the old Arkansas Gazette newsroom that is now a beehive of activity as Bill Clinton's national headquarters. Earnest young men and women manned telephones and pecked at desk computers with a sense of purpose and order that is more often associated with button-down Republican campaigns.

Mr. Sullivan, reflecting on the difference from the usually chaotic and untidy Democratic campaign headquarters in which he has toiled over the past 20 years, said with a grin: "This even looks Republican. I'm even wearing an ID badge. My God."

A real estate developer in Hawaii who together with his wife comes back to presidential politics every four years, Mr. Sullivan also noted that there are security guards in the building of the now-defunct newspaper -- a fixture in Republican campaign headquarters.

It is true that in terms of sheer organizational efficiency, the Clinton headquarters has taken a page from the GOP campaign manual on running a spick-and-span operation. It does not quite have the Republicans' insurance-company look, with the young men in regimental ties and wide suspenders and young women in flouncy dresses who adorn the George Bush headquarters in Washington. But it is a far cry from the slap-- McGovern headquarters of 1972 and most others in which the Sullivans and other Democratic old-timers have labored over the years.

However, the Clinton campaign sees itself this year in a role reversal with its Republican adversary in more significant ways than outward appearances.

"The tables have been turned," said David Wilhelm, the Chicago consultant who as campaign manager is responsible for political brainstorming and electoral-college strategy.

When the Republicans won the White House in five of the last six elections, Mr. Wilhelm said, they had the luxury of casting a wide net for electoral votes.

The Democrats have had to "thread the needle," focusing on a shorter list of specific, large states to have any hope of gathering the 270 electoral votes needed to win. Now, Mr. Wilhelm $H contends, it is the Republicans who must have a state-by-state strategy while the Democrats run a national campaign.

Mickey Kantor, the veteran Californian who is the campaign chairman, agrees. "This is the first time in my 20 years in national politics that we don't have to thread the needle," he said. "There is no region we're writing off. We have an operation in all 50 states and they're all open to us."

This contention is supported by favorable poll numbers for Mr. Clinton in nearly all states, as well as in the national polls, the latest of which, for the Washington Post, gives the Arkansas governor a 51 percent to 41 percent lead over President Bush. A CBS News-New York Times poll earlier in the week had Mr. Clinton ahead 51-to-36.

Mr. Kantor said another phenomenon usually associated with Republican presidential candidates makes him optimistic.

"Senators, congressmen, governors and local legislators all say they want to campaign with the national ticket," he said. "We used to have to practically horse-collar them. This gives us a much better base [in a presidential race] than we've had any time since Lyndon Johnson in 1964."

Mr. Kantor said Democrats in the past have been obliged to start shoring up their base right out of their convention, whereas the Republicans, secure in the South particularly, have been able to focus immediately on what they have considered the battleground states. But this year, Mr. Clinton and running mate Al Gore set out directly from their convention by bus to such 1992 battleground states as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Missouri.

By contrast, Mr. Kantor noted, Mr. Bush came out of a GOP convention that sought to consolidate his conservative base and "instead of going to battleground states, had to shore up that base" in the South, going to Mississippi, southern Missouri, Alabama and Georgia. Mr. Wilhelm recalled that in 1988 Mr. Bush "made an incredible number of trips to Illinois, Ohio and Michigan battleground states then and now], and he could do it because he had a lock on the South and elsewhere."

That is not the case this time around, he said, and the president's first post-convention trip was proof of it. "We Democrats have never been able to take things for granted," Mr. Wilhelm said. "Now they can't either."

The Clinton strategists clearly believe that the tables have turned on the Republicans as a result of Mr. Bush's precipitous drop in the polls before the convention and the leveling-out of whatever boost he got from his convention. And they openly credit the Republicans as role models in their efforts here to build and sustain a campaign organization that can take full advantage of the opportunities presented.

A Democratic failure in past campaigns, Mr. Wilhelm said, has been "in communicating a sense of our message and programs around the country. We have not kept our state organizations informed. I think we all have a sense that the Republicans have done a better job of it for years. A lot of people would be forceful advocates for us but were never asked. This year we don't want anybody to feel they haven't been asked."

Rapid response to breaking news developments, another GOP trademark, is a prime objective here. Daily wire stories on the campaign are fed regularly into the headquarters computer system so everyone will know what's happening and can contribute.

"We're probably just catching up to our opponents in this," acknowledged Eli Segal, the campaign's chief of staff and administrative boss. "Our assumption is that they've been doing this for a long time."

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