Sasso Holds the Key : Dukakis Advisers Struggle to Regain Lost Momentum

Times Staff Writer

On the Sunday night before Labor Day, John Sasso called five trusted advisers to an unusual reunion in a cramped third-floor conference room at Michael S. Dukakis’ presidential campaign headquarters.

Sasso had just returned as Dukakis’ top strategist, and he frankly assessed the campaign’s condition: adrift. “It was worse than he had feared,” said one participant in the meeting.

Indeed, in interviews with Sasso and a dozen top Dukakis campaign advisers and aides, a picture emerged this week of a Democratic campaign facing a surprising crisis of leadership and organization on the very eve of the general election campaign.

And despite dramatic improvements, with only five weeks until the Nov. 8 election, aides acknowledge that the problems at the Chauncy Street headquarters continue to hinder the Massachusetts governor in his uphill race against Republican nominee George Bush.


Top aides insist they have stabilized the problems, and cited network TV polls Tuesday that show a dead heat against Bush. But they acknowledge they have little room for further error. “We have to do everything right now for five weeks,” one aide said. “Can we do it? We’ll see.”

Sasso’s Sunday night summons went to a group of friends and advisers who helped him write the basic strategy and message in 1986 that Dukakis used to win the Democratic nomination. The group disbanded in September, 1987, when Sasso was forced out as campaign manager.

Now back in charge, Sasso began the meeting by ticking off a list. Dukakis was plummeting in polls. Debates were unscheduled. The Rev. Jesse Jackson was carping. Surrogate speakers were unorganized. And Dukakis had just rejected the Labor Day kickoff speech and was angrily demanding a new one.

That was the good news.


“We had no theme, no message, no strategy,” said one member of the Sunday night group, who demanded anonymity. “It was as if they came out of Atlanta and said: ‘Now what do we do?’ ”

“The candidate was running the campaign himself,” said another member. “That’s a cardinal sin in politics.”

“What was clear was the candidate’s confidence in the operation was shot to hell,” said a third. “And in many ways, the campaign . . . had become a drag, a drain, a liability.”

Sasso, 41, rejoined the campaign as vice chairman on Labor Day weekend, thinner and grayer a year after he was forced to quit for supplying reporters with “attack” videos that helped sink the campaign of rival candidate Joseph R. Biden Jr.

As campaign manager for Geraldine A. Ferraro’s 1984 vice presidential bid, Sasso is the only Dukakis aide who has already run a national campaign. More importantly, Sasso was called Dukakis’ political “alter ego” when he served the governor as chief of staff. Today, they have a special relationship.

“John has the confidence of the candidate,” said campaign spokesman Mark Gearan. “That’s his unique distinction.”

Has ‘Internal Radar’

“John is in my view the most talented political operative in our party,” said Charlie Baker, a former Sasso aide who is the campaign’s national field director. “He has a real, almost innate sense of what plays. And he has an internal radar that’s in tune with the governor. So when he makes a decision, it’s in sync with the candidate.”


And in his first week after that first Sunday night strategy session, Sasso focused on several immediate problems for Dukakis.

He flew to New York that Wednesday to negotiate peace with Jackson. Campaign Chairman Paul P. Brountas quickly agreed to Bush’s terms for debates, and dates were set. Dukakis announced a dozen campaign co-chairmen to operate as surrogates. A new advertising director was hired, and political veterans were quickly brought in as speech writers, schedulers and administrators.

“It was crazy,” one adviser said. “Phones didn’t work. Microphones didn’t work. The media was killing us. . . . This isn’t brain surgery, you know.”

General Election Plan

Armed with memos from his Sunday night group, Sasso drew up a general election plan by the following weekend. Fine-tuned in subsequent meetings, several aides said, the document finally gives Dukakis a plan that attempts to coordinate theme, message and strategy for the final campaign weeks.

“The way Dukakis works best is if he has a clear plan that he understands and agrees with,” said one longtime aide. In the Statehouse, for example, Dukakis’ staff wrote out clear policy objectives and new political goals every three months for the governor’s approval. But once he had won the nomination, “it never happened in the structured, clearly defined, strategic way that he was used to.”

In a telephone interview, Sasso declined to describe his plan or discuss his role in the campaign today. “I don’t talk about strategy,” he said. “I don’t think this is about strategy. This is about issues, not strategy.”

“Michael is talking about issues that he cares deeply about, issues that the American people care deeply about,” Sasso said. “I think people are not satisfied where we are as a country. They think Mr. Bush has not faced up to the challenges.”


Failed Own Challenge

But others say the Dukakis operation failed its own challenge. Following Sasso’s early blueprint, Dukakis had run in the primaries as a high-tech Democrat, offering economic optimism and a steady persona. A solid tactical operation and field organization helped him lock up the nomination by late April. And when he left the Democratic National Convention in July, Dukakis had a commanding lead in the polls, and probably the best-financed Democratic campaign in history.

But aides say now that the summer passed with no one making proper plans for the fall election.

As the challenger, Dukakis has always faced four daunting problems: peace, prosperity, his image as a Massachusetts liberal and the Republican advantage in the Electoral College stemming from built-in regional strength in the South and the Rockies. But in August, facing a Republican rival for the first time, his own campaign became a liability.

Little New Material

He wasted time campaigning in Massachusetts. His speeches offered little new material. Campaign events appeared haphazard and sloppy. He met the press so often that he lost control of his daily message.

“You saw it again and again,” one department head said. “Dukakis would have a good event, and then he’d answer one question, and that would be the news. He’d step on his own message.”

Moreover, Bush “refused to play the role the Dukakis campaign had scripted for him,” another adviser said. “And we had nothing to fall back on.”

Physically exhausted, Dukakis offered little or no defense as Bush slammed him day after day on such emotional issues as the Pledge of Allegiance, the Massachusetts prison furlough program and national defense. Dukakis’ negatives shot up to 40% in the polls.

“Something clearly had gone wrong,” said Ralph Whitehead, a University of Massachusetts professor who joined Sasso’s Sunday night meeting.

On the Defensive

Dukakis began to lay out his own issues with a series of speeches in early September on defense and foreign policy, but his campaign was still on the defensive. Although Sasso immediately cut Dukakis’ Statehouse time to one day a week, ordered speeches shorter and punchier and cut the candidate’s campaign appearances and access to the press, the damage was done.

Opinions vary as to how much Susan Estrich, who replaced Sasso as campaign manager last fall, should be blamed for the August slide. Many of Sasso’s supporters argue that the candidate was misserved by Estrich and her staff, that his needs were not met by a small, Boston-based, insulated and inexperienced crew.

“Dukakis lost confidence in Susan,” said one close adviser. “He was carrying the full weight of the campaign on his shoulders.” Said another: “Michael was enormously frustrated. He’d get speeches at 10 p.m., not know what the message is, and he’d have to stay up and work the speech himself.”

Blame Candidate

Others point at the candidate. “You can’t convince Dukakis to do something he doesn’t want to do,” said one longtime aide, who has tried. “Susan tried to get him out of his crouch, and get him to fight back,” said another. “He just wouldn’t.” Added a third: “Susan got us the nomination. You have to realize how awful it was here when Sasso left last year.”

Although Sasso and Estrich are publicly supportive of one another, tension remains high at campaign headquarters. When Sasso arrived that first Sunday, he found a chilly welcome, literally: Estrich had turned the floor’s air conditioning on full blast, then locked her office for the holiday weekend.

Estrich used to meet department chiefs each morning at 9; now Sasso meets them an hour earlier, leaving Estrich to run daily scheduling and communications instead.

“It’s an awkward situation,” said a second department head. “There’s a pattern of undermining her authority. . . . There’s a number of people with divided loyalties.”

‘Shadow Campaign’

For now, Sasso has created what several called a “shadow campaign” within the campaign structure. His group includes the Boston World Trade Center general manager, Thomas Glynn; the Statehouse director of operations, John DeVillars; former Ferraro campaign spokesman Francis O’Brien; attorney Peter Jacobs, and others.

Glynn insists the campaign has made significant progress. “We’ve cut the difference in the polls in 2 1/2 weeks. Bush is in a stall. We did well in the first debate, and we’re becoming the ‘beef candidate’ who is talking about substance.”

The next few weeks obviously will be crucial. Tad Devine, who runs the campaign’s surrogate operations, said the strategy calls for going on offense as much as possible.

“The offensive strategy says keep as much in play as long as possible, and then concentrate in the end, in the last two or three weeks, in the states you really think are possible,” he said.

And that end is fast approaching. “The loudest sound in the room that Sunday night was the clock ticking,” one adviser recalled of Sasso’s first meeting. “Time is running out.”