Consultant has Gore ready for battle

Strategist: One of the Democratic Party's fiercest warriors is a key player in the revamped campaign. In 1998, Maryland voters got a preview of his handiwork.

March 06, 2000|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Bob Shrum may be the best reason to take Al Gore at his word when he proclaims over and over again, "We've only just begun to fight."

As the vice president has turned around his fortunes, derailing once-formidable challenger Bill Bradley with a more pugilistic style, he has been aided by a veteran Washington media man known for playing rough, one whose handiwork has already been previewed by the Maryland electorate.

Shrum -- who has the dubious distinction of having produced an ad for Gov. Parris N. Glendening that Campaigns & Elections magazine named the "Most Brutally Effective Attack Spot" of 1998 -- has been a key player in the revamped Gore campaign since September.

One of the Democratic Party's fiercest warriors and most talented wordsmiths, Shrum -- along with Gore media chief Carter Eskew -- has developed ads, strategy, message and, most obviously, a sharper, more aggressive candidate.

"These are not people you get together to throw a birthday party," says Stuart Stevens, media adviser to Republican front-runner George W. Bush, who went up against Shrum in 1998 when Stevens worked for GOP gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

Shrum, 56, is a large presence, a lively, stubborn, shrewd strategist whose client list ranges from Maryland Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

A longtime adviser to the Kennedy family, he has worked for scores of Democrats through three decades. He has turned some of the more eloquent phrases in modern American politics, such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's celebrated "sail against the wind" speech at the 1980 Democratic National Convention: "For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die." He has also devised some of the hardest-hitting attack strategies.

From his office near Georgetown, the campaign's nerve center in Washington, Shrum is part of Gore's core message group, participating in several daily conference calls with the campaign's headquarters in Nashville. He talks to Gore "some days, a fair amount," a reminder that, for all staffers tromping around Tennessee, the campaign is still very connected to Washington.

It was a Shrum inspiration, for instance, that made headlines in one of the earlier Gore-Bradley debates when the vice president proposed that the two Democrats abandon all 30-second TV ads and instead hold twice-weekly debates. Bradley dismissed the suggestion as a "ploy," but it resonated with the public.

"Shrum has helped the campaign find its voice," says campaign manager Donna Brazile, who first worked with Shrum on Rep. Richard A. Gephardt's 1988 presidential campaign against, among others, Gore. "He takes the best of Al Gore and makes it better."

But not all Democrats, or even all Gore supporters, are delighted that Shrum is part of the team. One longtime colleague describes him as an emotional, frenetic man who "can suck up all the oxygen in a room really fast."

And pointing to Shrum's debacle in 1998 as media adviser to Democrat Al Checchi, who spent about $40 million of his own money in California's gubernatorial primary and won only 13 percent of the vote, another Democratic political operative said Shrum "perpetrated one of the greatest failures in American politics."

For his part, Shrum -- a bundle of nervous energy who writes speeches and scripts in longhand -- says his influence on the campaign has been to try to get people out of the way and let Gore assert himself.

"I think Al Gore was overadvised and overcoached," says Shrum, whose partners, Tad Devine and Michael Donilon, are also part of the Gore team. "The vice presidency obviously has certain advantages if you're running for your party's nomination. But it also means for seven years people have seen you in a certain way. In a way, what you need to say is, `Look, you're the guy. You go out there and do it your way.' "

But what most helped Gore turn around his once wobbly campaign was his success in raising fears about Bradley's health care plan, the centerpiece of his campaign, a strategy crafted by Gore's team of Washington insiders.

"Bob is a strong believer that campaigns should be about differences and contrasts," says Democratic consultant Bill Carrick.

Says GOP media adviser Stevens: "Gore has assembled the best team for running an old-style attack race."

On the attack in Maryland

Few know better about Shrum's battle skills than Maryland's 1998 gubernatorial combatants. When Glendening appeared to be slipping in the polls, he brought in Shrum, who developed blistering TV ads condemning Sauerbrey for a "civil rights record to be ashamed of."

The ads were based on a vote against a civil rights bill in the General Assembly that related to sexual harassment and was actually killed by Democrats. Sauerbrey, who said the ads distorted her voting record, believes that they had a "huge impact" on the election.

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