'War room' assembles to polish Clinton's image Campaign team returns to duty

February 10, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton may have promised yesterday to shrink the White House staff, but for now he's brought back into the fold the hip and high-powered team that turned his floundering presidential campaign into a smooth and sophisticated hit show.

With crisis after crisis entangling his first three weeks in office, Mr. Clinton has enlisted the help of former campaign strategists James Carville and Paul Begala, pollster Stanley Greenberg, and Mandy Grunwald, the media manager and mastermind of the "Arsenio" appearance.

This week could have passed for a page out of Campaign '92. There was Mr. Begala on the morning and afternoon talk shows Monday, doing his best at damage control over the second collapse of an attorney general selection, much as he did when problems arose during the campaign.

There was Ms. Grunwald on ABC's "Nightline" Monday night, defending Mr. Clinton against charges of a "double standard" for women, much as she defended candidate Clinton last year on another "woman problem," Gennifer Flowers.

There was Mr. Carville, the jeans-and-sneakers strategist who brought a rough-hewn street savvy to the campaign, lunching on a tuna fish sandwich and salad at the White House yesterday with Deputy Communications Director David Dreyer and poking his head into the Oval Office to chat with the man he helped place there.

The political team, occupants of the campaign's nerve center, or "war room," in Little Rock, Ark., is not on the White House payroll. Officially, its members are consultants to the Democratic National Committee, which picks up the tab for their services.

"The president, through the DNC, is one of my clients," says Mr. Carville, whose other clients include New Jersey Gov. James J. Florio in his re-election bid this year.

Of the group, only Mr. Begala, who attends daily meetings in the office of White House Communications Director George Stephanopoulos, has set up shop in the Old Executive Office Building, next door to the White House, in a workspace said to be a re-created "war room" that he shares with Mr. Dreyer.

"The war room is a state of mind," says Mr. Dreyer. "It's not really a place."

And the state of mind that Carville, Begala & Co. are bringing to the administration is one of public relations -- on the heels of such public relations debacles as the failed attorney general selections and the explosive issue of homosexuals in the military, and on the eve of the unveiling of Mr. Clinton's economic package.

"They are being very helpful in laying the groundwork to win a lot of public support and prompt passage in Congress for the president's [economic] program," says Mr. Dreyer.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans are surprised that the team that produced the finely tuned Clinton campaign is back at it during such a critical time for the president.

"They are about to go into the most important sales job of the Clinton presidency: to get people to rally around an economic program that probably will define the politics of the Clinton administration for a long time to come," says Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin.

"It will require people to make some difficult choices -- so it will require political persuasion.

"One of the lessons they learned from Jimmy Carter's experience is that governing is in part an exercise in persuasion. And that requires a lot of political skills."

GOP pollster Neil Newhouse believes Mr. Clinton needs the political skills of his former strategists to help "weather the storms" of the last three weeks and regain momentum.

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