Clinton camp maintains a rapid-response team ON POLITICS

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

August 28, 1992|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- In the spacious newsroom of the now-defunct Arkansas Gazette, the news of the day remains a vital commodity. Where not long ago reporters diligently worked the telephones in pursuit of news, young recruits in the campaign to elect Gov. Bill Clinton president sit at the recently abandoned desks carrying out various political chores.

Each desk is equipped with a computer on which the campaign workers can call up, among other things, all wire stories on the campaign of that day, fed into the computer system every two hours by a small staff of young researchers who monitor the major television networks, newspapers, news magazines and the wire services. The networks are watched around the clock for reports that may affect the candidate or his campaign.

The distillation of the day's news and distribution of it through the Clinton headquarters' computer system is part of an effort designed to keep all individuals working for the election of the Arkansas governor apprised of fast-breaking developments requiring a rapid campaign response.

Ever since Michael Dukakis in 1988 turned the other cheek to various charges against him by the Bush-Quayle campaign, Democrats have vowed to learn a lesson. And at the Clinton headquarters, the answer has been the creation of a policy, and a mind-set, for replying to allegations and other campaign developments in the shortest possible time -- within the same news cycle if possible.

Whenever some development breaks, the Little Rock headquarters is geared not only to check out the facts and fashion a response for the candidate on the road but also to convey to state Clinton offices around the country what that response should be from local Clinton campaign officials and surrogates carrying the Clinton message in speeches, interviews, talk shows and the like.

Whereas most campaigns in the past have been organized by function, this one is by geographical region. That is, instead of having separate departments dealing with field operations, scheduling, press, issues, surrogate speakers and so on, the Clinton headquarters has "clusters" by region of the country, with each regional desk having its own specialist for each of these functions. An important member is a press aide who works with and coordinates the message put out by campaign press secretaries in the various states.

For example, when the Bush-Quayle campaign started telling voters that Clinton as governor had raised taxes in his state "128 times," the headquarters quickly researched the facts, challenged the allegation and sent out the response to Clinton field offices around the country to rebut the charge.

Such efficiency is old stuff for the Republicans, but the usually less organized Democrats are just getting wise. "We're probably just catching up to our opponents," says Eli Segal, the campaign headquarters' chief of staff. "Our assumption is that they've been doing this a long time."

The driving force behind the determination to respond quickly to any charge or other campaign development is James Carville, the frenetic political consultant from Louisiana. He won national attention in 1991 as the engineer along with partner Paul Begala of Democrat Harris Wofford's upset Senate victory over former Gov. Richard Thornburgh in Pennsylvania.

"You can't react to information you don't know," Carville says, "and timing is everything." George Stephanapoulos, the campaign's communications director, likens the news cycle to the stock market. "Everything happens in a 9:30 to 4:30 window," he says, and an effective candidate or campaign must get the message desired out to voters and the press within that window each day. Carville says: "If you're not right on top of something, you're not there."

Segal says the Clinton campaign has made an "extraordinary investment" in facilities to gather and distribute the breaking news of the day to the campaign staff here and around the country and to enable the candidate to respond swiftly to charges and other developments.

If there is an unwitting legacy from the 1988 Dukakis campaign, this may be it.

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