They better not cry, they better not pout

Campaigns: In the American way of politics, we give points to how gracefully you lose, close down shop and get on with your life. And we grade on the curve.

March 06, 2000|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- They may hum "Hail to the Chief" when no one's listening and call themselves "Mister President" in front of the bathroom mirror, but pretty soon some presidential hopefuls are going to have to embrace a stark reality.

Losing stinks.

As Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore attempt to sew up their nominations fast, the challengers are left with a race-the-clock battle against defeat. And so as we enter the final countdown in this decisive month -- with party casualties emerging as early as tomorrow's Super Tuesday primaries -- it might be time to talk about the art of political surrender.

In Vince Lombardi's famously indecipherable logic: "Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing." Imagine then how it feels for a candidate to go from an aura of invincibility one day -- with special effects and bold promises -- to total defeat the next. Any man who has called himself the next president of the United States before thousands of people, rented confetti cannons for his own public appearances and picked a personal theme song is bound to understand where Lombardi was coming from.

Arizona Sen. John McCain is using those special effects as his campaign marches into its toughest-ever fight to stay alive. On the other side of the aisle, a cloud of defeat has settled over the campaign of Democratic hopeful Bill Bradley.

Whether McCain and Bradley pull off upsets or concede, pretty soon the leader in each party will emerge. And when that happens, the loser will have to follow some time-honored ground rules. First: No moping.

"How a candidate loses is a very important question -- it's part of the American tradition," says presidential historian Robert Dallek. "Even if you're frustrated and angry and antagonistic, you still go through with the ceremony of defeat. You acknowledge the loss, you stroke the other candidate, you say, `What a great fellow you are even though you beat me.' "

If that fails, a losing campaign can always go the Steve Forbes route. At his Alexandria, Va., headquarters, a receptionist still answers the phone by chirping "Forbes 2000," blithely ignoring the fact that her candidate dropped out of the race a month ago. The scene carries more than a whiff of desperation, with a sign on the front door declaring "Forbes -- He Wants You To Win," even though the biggest mission now seems to be bubble-wrapping the heavy equipment. You half-expect to see Forbes himself, hiding in a closet, refusing to come out.

But a campaign is like a multimillion-dollar corporation that has just gone bankrupt -- staffers cannot simply take the Alka-Seltzer off their desks and go. A political run, Forbes campaign manager Bill Dal Col explains, needs an organized shutdown. So work will continue at the headquarters until the end of the month. Dal Col, who has been on Forbes' payroll since the publisher's failed 1996 presidential bid, is the chief operating officer of the defeat.

"We start it like a business," he says. "And we close it like a business."

It takes some skill to lose right. Dal Col has a checklist: Halt the contractors, pay off the debts, and by all means shut down the computer system before rancorous staff start firing off poison-pen e-mails to campaign rivals. Get rid of the rental furniture and send thank-you notes to the donors who never caught Forbes' concession speech -- that money goes to pay the campaign debt. Set up resume work stations and a job-referral system at the headquarters for unemployed staffers. And, don't forget to clear the closets of the surplus brand-name clothing.

"We'll give these to kids at public schools," Dal Col says of the orange Forbes T-shirts piled high in an empty room. Somewhat ruefully, he adds, "They can paint over them."

A failed campaign perfects the mantra that, on the issues and in the voters' hearts -- where it really counts -- they have won. Even so, staffers have to come to grips with life after the campaign, which moves from 200 mph to a screeching halt overnight. "One day your phone never stops ringing, the next day it doesn't ring at all," Dal Col says.

The candidate could have the hardest time of all. Without a second career or at least a big distraction -- Republican Bob Dole's Viagra crusade after the 1996 defeat, for example -- a contender can fall into a major funk.

"Some candidates drift back into political obscurity," says presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. "You're a former somebody. There's nothing worse than being a `former.' "

But that is the best part, if the campaign falls deeply into debt -- as many do. Astronaut and former Ohio Democratic Sen. John Glenn is still paying for his 1984 presidential bid, and his aging campaign committee was even filing Federal Election Commission reports while he took a senior citizens trip into outer space last year.

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