Image is in the details, GOP consultants say

Two help Ehrlich craft ads that reflect him, his goals

Election 2002

October 28, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

As an image of a towheaded girl wearing a yellow T-shirt and dribbling a soccer ball flashes on the television screen, a narrator states that Maryland's schoolchildren deserve a better future - and that Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is the gubernatorial candidate who will guarantee it for them.

The advertisement, paid for by the Republican's campaign for governor, is aimed squarely at suburbanite mothers and owes much of its power to subtle effects: The girl in the commercial is wearing a yellow soccer jersey familiar to anyone who has stood on the sidelines cheering for a child in a Montgomery County recreation league.

With its attention to detail and slick packaging, the television spot typifies the work of its creator, the Stevens & Schriefer Group. The Washington-based consulting firm has mapped out Ehrlich's advertising strategy in his cheek-to-jowl race against Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Democratic lieutenant governor.

Since 1994, Stuart Stevens and Russ Schriefer have worked to burnish Ehrlich's image as a different kind of Republican - an empathetic leader who has shared the challenges of working-class voters. Targeting mothers over 35, middle-class African-Americans and commuters irked by traffic, Ehrlich's commercials underscore his promise: He can address their concerns.

"The biggest asset we have in this campaign is Bob Ehrlich," says Schriefer. "Bob comes across as sincere and a strong leader."

His newest ads alternate between attacks on the stewardship of Townsend's political partner, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, and unscripted testimonials by carefully selected advocates, such as an award-winning teacher and a prominent African-American lawyer from Baltimore.

"Voters are very sophisticated consumers of all these little signs and codes," Stevens says. "People may not read all that much, but they really know how to look."

The media consulting firm is a marriage of Hollywood glitz and Washington grind.

Stevens, a writer for several critically lauded network television shows (including NBC's I'll Fly Away) and author of more than a half-dozen books, divides his time between New York, California and Vermont.

By contrast, Schriefer fled to politics after an internship at a law firm. He worked on local Republican races and progressed through the ranks at various political jobs around New York and Capitol Hill.

Stevens unwinds by going on 8- to 16-mile runs or 2-mile swims as he prepares for triathlons. Schriefer prefers to take in the latest big-budget movie.

It's Schriefer who takes the day-to-day lead on the Ehrlich campaign, though Stevens routinely talks strategy with Ehrlich and his aides. Stevens is now in Los Angeles, working on a nascent political drama for NBC, and he has scaled back his consulting activities since 1998.

`Both deadly serious'

"Russ is a little more focused on politics," says former Rep. John R. Kasich of Ohio, a past client. "Stuart would sit under a tree and read, or throw around a football. But they're both deadly serious guys when it comes to running a race."

Schriefer and Stevens have built up an impressive roster of clients, including governors, senators and President Bush. They are equally well-versed in recent Maryland lore. Schriefer helped Helen Delich Bentley chart her 1984 bid for the House of Representatives, and the two men have worked for Ehrlich since his first run for Congress.

They developed ads trading on Ehrlich's roots in working-class rowhouses of Baltimore County, making note of his scholarships to Gilman School and Princeton University. "Bob's story is the American dream writ large," Stevens says. "He's the American kid made good, very much from working-class roots. Bob's comfortable with himself and with people from all walks of life."

In 2000, Schriefer used a vintage 1966 camera to film Ehrlich's toddler son, Drew, frolicking on the front yard. During this year's ads, nostalgic footage of Drew accompanies warm exchanges between Ehrlich and his wife, Kendel, as they sit at their kitchen table. Townsend would later mock Ehrlich's proud assertion that he knew how to change diapers, but GOP strategists say the commercial helped establish the candidate as a different kind of Republican - an empathetic parent.

"We can talk about grass roots, and it's important," says Kasich, the former Republican congressman. "We can talk about organizational machines, and that's important, too. But when we get right down to it, the way people get promoted on TV is the image voters will get."

A media specialist

Stuart Stevens, 49, is a native of Jackson, Miss., and his first brush with politics occurred at the age of 15, when he volunteered for a friend of his parents. By his account, as a young adult he so loathed the Democrats who were the lions of the state's establishment - men now viewed as reactionaries on racial issues - that he worked for Republicans such as Sen. Thad Cochran, a near-heresy at the time.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.