Ad consultants wage war Commercials: Robert Shrum and Stuart Stevens, high-priced consultants and longtime adversaries, do battle in the Maryland gubernatorial campaign.

The Political Game

October 20, 1998|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

IN WASHINGTON, he's known as the man behind some of the slickest and hardest-hitting campaign commercials in the country. But in Maryland, Democratic ad guru Robert Shrum has found himself the target of one.

No sooner did he replace Gov. Parris N. Glendening's previous consultant than Shrum was characterized in a biting radio ad as a "maestro of negative advertising" and the "king of slash and burn."

If radio listeners were left to wonder about the behind-the-scenes machinations, Shrum knew exactly who had orchestrated the attack. It was a longtime GOP adversary, Stuart Stevens, another high-priced Washington consultant who is working for Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

Maryland's gubernatorial campaign is being waged in a costly and increasingly vitriolic advertising battle between the two big-name consultants. Both have heavyweight client lists -- and similar expertise at negative campaign tactics.

"Those firms are in the top rung. And frankly, any media consultant worth his salt has got to be able to do a good negative," says Jennifer Duffy, an editor with the Cook Political Report.

To smaller Maryland consultants like Roger Caplan, who advised Republican Charles I. Ecker in his losing challenge to Sauerbrey, both men are "hired guns."

"We've gotten so much into the consultant era," he says, "that it's consultant against consultant."

But Washington analysts see distinctions. Shrum, 55, has more of a reputation for blunt, attention-grabbing ads. His signature can be seen in Glendening's most recent commercials, which feature an ominous soundtrack, clipped images and a kicker calling "the real" Sauerbrey "a risk we can't afford."

Stevens, 46, also has a history of attack ads. But he is credited more frequently for cinematic flair, especially in feel-good ads that show off his film school training. One highly regarded example is Sauerbrey's spot touting her school plans.

This is far from the consultants' first ad war. The two men staged a $10 million showdown between Massachusetts Gov. William F. Weld and Sen. John F. Kerry in 1996. By the time Kerry had recaptured his seat, with Shrum's help, many voters were disgusted -- and both politicians lost standing in opinion polls.

Shrum says his Republican rival still resents him because of the Massachusetts loss. Stevens says it's politics, not personal, and denies holding a grudge.

Most infuriating to Shrum was the radio ad's accusation that he's an "expert specializing in vicious attacks against female candidates." Shrum calls it "absurd," noting his clients include Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and former New York Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro.

"Am I going to put out an ad about me saying all that?" Shrum says. "No. I'm going to put an ad on saying Ellen Sauerbrey is the NRA's candidate for governor. Campaigns are about candidates, and not me personally."

Stevens insists that his opponent "does have this distinction of having run these very vicious campaigns against women." He points to Shrum's work for the male opponent of Ann Richards in the bitterly contested 1990 Texas gubernatorial race.

But Democratic consultant Harrison Hickman, who worked for Richards, says Shrum was aggressive, not sexist.

"Bob marshals exceedingly good arguments," he says. "Having been on the receiving side, I can tell you it's not pleasant. But having been on the delivering side, I'm glad he's there."

Shrum has been criticized -- but also praised -- since he replaced Glendening's longtime consultants seven weeks before the Nov. 3 general election.

One Democratic activist was so upset by Shrum's hiring that he formed "Anne Arundel Democrats for Sauerbrey." But others, including state Del. Leon G. Billings, a Montgomery County Democrat, credit Shrum with sharpening Glendening's campaign message. Billings says Shrum has succeeded in taking "the makeup off the 'new' Ellen Sauerbrey."

They work on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Shrum is an unabashed liberal who regularly matches wits on CNN's "Crossfire" and "Capitol Gang." Stevens represents moderate and conservative Republicans. His partner, Russ Schriefer, is the political consultant for Maryland Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who introduced them to Sauerbrey.

For all their animosity, Shrum and Stevens have more than the scorching ads they produce in common.

Both are gifted writers. Shrum was speechwriter for the 1972 presidential campaign of George McGovern and has written for Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. More recently, he wrote a draft of a speech for President Clinton to address the nation on the Lewinsky scandal, which White House aides rejected as too apologetic. Stevens has published a number of articles and essays, and has written episodes for television series.

The two have the same philosophy about the negative ads they prefer to call "comparative."

Says Shrum: "This firm is pretty effective at telling people where voters stand on issues. I think that's fair and reasonable."

Or, in the words of Stevens: "The worst you can do is put up an advertisement that's wallpaper."

Pub Date: 10/20/98

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