Stand-ins hit campaign trail when the candidates can't

Surrogates are filling in in greater numbers this presidential race

March 28, 2004|By Maria L. La Ganga | Maria L. La Ganga,LOS ANGELES TIMES

First came the e-mail from President Bush's campaign alerting reporters to a news conference at which Republican legislators would criticize John Kerry as a tax-and-spend liberal. Then came the Kerry invitation for a conference call with Democrats to discuss Bush's "fiscal irresponsibility."

The Republican National Committee held a call to unveil its online "John Kerry $pendometer." And even before this back-and-forth Monday, Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, was on the morning shows defending the president against charges that he had ignored the al-Qaida threat. Former Democratic presidential contender Wesley K. Clark also hit the airwaves early, arguing that Bush "took us to a war the wrong way."

And where were the men running for president as all of this politicking bubbled up on their behalf? Kerry was vacationing at his family retreat in snowy Ketchum, Idaho. Bush was at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., making phone calls to foreign leaders and taking part in a photo opportunity.

At a moment's notice

These are busy times for the armies of surrogates who campaign for Kerry and Bush, women and men who are called in - often at a moment's notice - to serve as attack dogs or policy experts or simply warm bodies on days when the candidates can't show up.

Although surrogates are not new in American politics, experts say they are out in greater force this year, driven by changes at the intersection of politics, technology and media.

More media outlets are thirsting for political news. The Internet has revved up the response time to candidate charges and countercharges. Hand-held communication devices, such as BlackBerries, and wireless Internet capability allow journalists to report, write and broadcast at all hours.

Also, the short primary season means a long general election campaign, one in which about 20 states are potentially up for grabs. No candidate can cover all of this literal and figurative ground alone. And given the razor-thin margin by which Bush got into the White House four years ago, no one can afford to ignore a bit of it.

Enter the surrogates. Both campaigns have at least 100 participants and a separate staff to coordinate their movements. Both campaigns expect the stand-ins to play an integral role in the months ahead. Both campaigns don't have much choice.

"There are no half measures in this campaign," said Charles Cook, an independent political analyst in Washington. "You do everything you can. There will be no arrows left in the quiver."

Since Kerry, a Massachusetts senator, effectively wrapped up his party's nomination this month, his campaign estimates that surrogates have been involved in hundreds of events.

A parade of Republicans has stepped up to accentuate the negatives about Kerry. The Bush campaign "has increased its level of engagement with regard to John Kerry over the last two weeks, no doubt about it," spokesman Steve Schmidt said.

Kerry uses stand-ins as often as possible, said campaign spokesman David Wade. This is a reversal from previous Democratic behavior, he said, when the party did poorly at mounting responses and conceded too much television and talk-radio time to Republicans.

"Now you have an even greater influence of cable TV and a 24-hour news cycle, and it'd be political suicide not to take advantage of every medium out there," Wade said. "We intend to counter every attack."

The Bush campaign plans to follow Kerry across America like an argumentative shadow, using its stand-ins to "talk about the president's steady leadership" and about Kerry's "propensity to be for and against major issues," Schmidt said.

"Everywhere Senator Kerry travels, there will be campaign surrogates," he said.

The Democrats plan to stay close to Bush, as evidenced during the days Kerry was on vacation. On March 18, Bush traveled to Fort Campbell, Ky., for a speech. That day, a group of veterans from Kentucky sent a letter to the president - forwarded to journalists by Kerry's staff - asking Bush "to stop neglecting America's troops and veterans."

Ambitious lawmakers aren't the only people who enjoy the visibility that comes with being a surrogate. Jack Giralico of Louisville, a veteran who signed the letter, described his action as of equal benefit to his cause and Kerry's. "Here's a candidate who supports our initiatives and our views," he said. "I'm taking advantage of an element of the campaign that I see."

Yesterday, Bush traveled to Orlando, Fla., for his first official rally of the campaign. The day before, the state's Democratic U.S. senators, Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, held a news conference in Miami to "highlight the impact of George Bush's failed policies on Florida's working families."

When Kerry traveled to the president's home state of Texas this month, Bush surrogates went into overdrive arguing in at least a dozen conference calls, live appearances and written statements that Kerry's economic policies would hurt the United States.

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