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COLUMN ONE : Feinstein’s 30-Second Ascent : A dramatic TV commercial thrusts the former San Francisco mayor into the forefront of the gubernatorial race. The ad is headed for a place in campaign lore.

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Early on a January morning this year, political consultants Hank Morris and William Carrick prowled through Dianne Feinstein’s San Francisco mansion, looking over the memorabilia from her nine years as mayor.

Morris cued up old videotapes on Feinstein’s VCR. Carrick pawed through a stack of black-and-white photographs.

“There was a lot of grip-and-grin stuff,” Carrick recalls, describing the traditional photo of a politician shaking hands. “But there were also some shots of Dianne with kids and poor people, with cops and working people.”

A few days later, Morris and Carrick took the tapes and photographs to a New York studio and filmed, spliced, edited and jammed together a 30-second commercial on Feinstein that has become known as “The Grabber” in California political circles.

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No matter how the volatile race for governor turns out, that ad is already headed for a permanent place in campaign lore.

The first political commercial of a very important election year, it helped propel Feinstein to the lead in a recent Los Angeles Times Poll on the governor’s race over both her Democratic primary opponent, Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp, and the presumptive Republican nominee, U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson.

The turnabout is one of the most startling in California political history. Feinstein badly trailed both men in a Times poll in December and, by January, many political insiders had written her off because of her slow start in populous Southern California.

Taken in late February right after the airing of the ad, the new poll suddenly found Feinstein 19 points ahead of Van de Kamp and 11 points ahead of Wilson.

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It has changed everything for the Feinstein campaign.

Calls from women and others eager to volunteer are pouring in; the staff must seek larger quarters. Fund raising is up dramatically.

“That ad is the best 600 grand ever spent in a political campaign anywhere,” said Democratic consultant Paul Ambrosino (who says he is neutral in the race), in a reference to the $600,000 it cost Feinstein to air the commercial for a month in Los Angeles and other media markets.

The ad ran for most of February and returns to the airwaves this week in parts of the state outside Los Angeles.

Running it so far ahead of the June 5 primary was a gamble because most recent campaigns have shown that the voters just don’t want to focus on the election until the final weeks.

Some consultants, in fact, thought Morris and Carrick had wasted Feinstein’s money.

The way the ad opens was also a gamble, since it uses TV footage of a traumatic event, the origin of the nickname “The Grabber.”

It is the Nov. 27, 1978, press conference at which Feinstein took charge of San Francisco after announcing that Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk had been assassinated by an angry former supervisor.

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The angle of the TV camera is from somewhere below and in front of the crush of grim-faced people surrounding Feinstein at the post-assassination press conference. She looks taut but calm as she says, “Both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot . . . and killed.”

There are groans. A woman screams.

And then the ad’s narrator--whose “urgent” voice was used several years ago in ads for the gritty Vietnam War film “Platoon"--intones, “Forged from tragedy, her leadership brought San Francisco together.”

As president of the Board of Supervisors, Feinstein, who had been thinking of quitting politics, was thrust by Moscone’s assassination into the job of acting mayor. She went on to win two terms at the polls.

“Nobody, and I mean nobody , could take their eyes off that ad with that beginning,” says David Bienstock, a top adviser to Wilson.

Some Van de Kamp supporters have criticized Feinstein’s use of the post-assassination footage as being in poor taste.

But a memo obtained by The Times reveals that Van de Kamp’s own media consultants, David Doak and Robert Shrum, told Feinstein in 1987 that if they ran her gubernatorial campaign they would spotlight the assassination as a way of showing that she reacts well to crisis.

Morris had already gotten glimpses of that gripping TV footage before he and Carrick ransacked Feinstein’s files and found what they wanted.

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Last November, after the two men agreed to take on Feinstein’s stumbling campaign, Morris had a meeting with longtime Feinstein aide Hadley Roff, a 58-year-old teddy bear of a man who is known as “the keeper of the flame” because of his knowledge of his boss’s record, her virtues and her flaws.

Roff put a pile of taped footage of various mayoral events and press conferences into a big shopping bag and Morris schlepped them to New York, where he lives.

He very nearly lost half the tapes when the bag broke as he was rushing through the madhouse of Kennedy Airport on his way to a cab.

“In the studio in Manhattan I watched everything Hadley gave me,” Morris says. “There were snips of the post-assassination moments, but nothing good enough to use in a top-quality ad. The important thing, though, is that Hadley’s stuff convinced me that what I wanted was out there somewhere.”

Later, on that January morning in Feinstein’s home, Morris found what he was looking for: Good, sharp color footage of the post-assassination announcement. It was in a retrospective of the “Feinstein Years” done by a San Francisco TV station.

Meanwhile, Carrick found in the stack of photos what he wanted to put in the 30-second spot: “Dianne with Con Murphy, the chief of police when she was mayor. He was a big, tough cop.”

In the ad, Cornelius Murphy--with his wide sideburns and chief’s uniform--smiles at Dianne Feinstein. She smiles back.

Suddenly, in the superspeed of the 30-second spot, a headline flashes up. It is from the San Francisco Examiner’s coverage of a 1975 city dispute: “Feinstein Backs Police.”

There are also photos of Feinstein with a small black child, Feinstein leading a pro-choice rally at an abortion clinic, Feinstein smiling in the middle of a throng crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on the 50th anniversary of its opening.

And there is a quick shot of a cover from City-State Magazine, a publication that named Feinstein the most effective mayor in the nation in 1987.

Morris and Carrick say that three key words in their 51-word script were actually written by Feinstein.

“Dianne knew that we had to convey that she is tough, but she also wanted to make sure that she came across as compassionate,” says Carrick. “So she came up with ‘tough and caring.’ ”

The entire line reads: “Tough and caring, she pushed for day care, cracked down on toxics, added police and cut crime by 20%.”

Her opponents will quibble and cite some twists and turns in her nine-year mayoralty, but the commercial does not misstate her achievements.

“The mission was to jam as much about Dianne and her record into the spot as we could,” says Morris, “because it would be the first thing many Californians, especially those in the south, would find out about her.”

But there were technical hurdles because, as Feinstein’s husband, Richard Blum, exclaimed when he first saw the ad, “Thirty seconds sure goes by fast!”

Blum, a wealthy investment banker who has lent the campaign more than $1 million, also said to Carrick, “Uh, how much did this thing cost to make?” Told that it was only $13,000, Blum smiled and said, “Best 13 grand I ever spent.”

One technical problem in making the ad concerned the “grabber” beginning. It took up 10 of the 30 seconds.

“We wanted the first thing on the screen to be the date of the events people were about to see, Nov. 27, 1978,” says Morris. “But to get the maximum out of our time, we finally had to start Dianne’s announcement of the assassinations at the same time the date flashed up there.”

Another problem was the jarring switch from the color TV footage that begins the ad to the black and white photographs that follow.

Adam Hanft, a New York advertising executive, suggested to Morris that he have the studio technician convert the last shot of the color TV footage--which shows Feinstein’s taut face--into black and white.

The result is a smoother transition from footage to photos.

The technical problems were a snap compared to a substantive matter that had to be addressed in the ad.

It was a case of “mistaken identity” on the candidates’ positions on the death penalty. The two consultants had not come across anything quite like it in their 15 years of hanging around political campaigns.

Carrick, 39, is a former aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), and he directed Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt’s dramatic victory in the 1988 Democratic presidential caucuses in Iowa.

He moved to Los Angeles after Gephardt’s bid for the nomination faded and went to work for Westfield Inc., parent company of an Australian TV network that buys American programming.

Morris, 36, is also close to the Kennedys, having served as a protege to a man named Jack English, a New Yorker who persuaded Robert F. Kennedy to run for the Senate from New York in 1964.

While a partner of New York media guru David Garth, Morris made TV ads for Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley’s near-miss gubernatorial campaign in 1982.

Brought together by Kennedy clan acquaintances, Morris and Carrick had just formed a political consulting partnership last fall when they were recommended to Feinstein and her husband by a friend of former Vice President Walter F. Mondale.

Soon after Feinstein hired them, Morris and Carrick got in touch with KRC Research of New York, a firm that specializes in using demographic information to find voters for focus groups.

In a focus group, each participant is paid about $50 to show up for a session in which the consultants probe for the voters’ perceptions of the candidates and the issues.

Carrick and Morris held focus groups with voters around the state in December and it was then, Morris says, that they discovered “a major case of mistaken identity on the death penalty.”

“Most people,” Morris continues, “just assumed that John Van de Kamp was for the death penalty, probably because he has been attorney general. They assumed Dianne was against it because she is a woman from a liberal city. Of course, the opposite is true. He is against capital punishment and she is for it.”

(Van de Kamp--in a stance that the Times poll found confusing to voters--says he is personally opposed to capital punishment but also has urged that the state get on with executions because he believes the delays are undermining the criminal justice system.)

Morris felt the mistaken identity could only be untangled if the TV ad compared Feinstein to Van de Kamp on the death penalty issue.

The trouble was, the consultants did not want to attack Van de Kamp in the first spot. This ad was supposed to define Feinstein in a positive way with voters.

They resolved it by coming up with the last line in the ad, which is worded this way: “She is the only Democrat for governor who is for the death penalty.”

Carrick says that when he flew from New York to Los Angeles in mid-January with the new commercial in his briefcase he knew the toughest audience would be Feinstein herself.

“I met her and her daughter Katherine at their condo in Century City around 10 o’clock that night,” Carrick recalls. “Katherine saw it one time and loved it.”

Feinstein, on the other hand, “watched it again and again,” Carrick says. “Ten times. No expression. Finally she broke into a big smile and said, ‘Well, Bill, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.’ ”

Carrick knew what that meant: Run it.

For Feinstein it was a big leap. She has never run statewide before, never dealt with media consultants who have worked in presidential campaigns, never watched her life’s big moments crammed so smoothly into a 30-second ad.

In all of the media markets, Carrick and Morris bought time around the network morning shows and before and after local evening news shows. They bought no time on the independent stations and no slots around any prime-time sitcoms or dramas.

“We wanted viewers seeking information, people who want to keep up with what’s going on,” says Morris. “They are more likely to vote.”

Because of the confusion over the death penalty, Morris and Carrick said they didn’t have much choice but to air an early commercial. The maxim in politics is: Define your candidate before the opponent does.

There were other factors, too.

“One big thing that came out of the focus groups,” says Carrick, “is that after seven years of low-profile (Gov. George) Deukmejian, people clearly wanted someone bolder. They wanted action. They thought the state was drifting. Perfect for Dianne. We had to get her story out there in a hurry.”

Morris listed one more reason they bought early TV time.

“We had TV all to ourselves. You won’t see that again in this political year. That allowed us to literally strip the morning shows.”

To “strip” a show means your ad runs every time the show is on--five exposures a week for “Today,” “Good Morning America” and “CBS This Morning.” “People saw it over and over; we got a lot for our money,” Morris says.

As other candidates and ballot initiatives begin using television in the coming weeks, the demand for air time will be so heavy that no campaign will be able to get the kind of selective and repetitive exposure the first Feinstein commercial enjoyed.

Because it was the first ad of the season--and because it is credited with turning around the polls for Feinstein--the commercial has also received a lot of exposure in local TV news reports.

The Feinstein spot even made NBC network news last week in a story about the political power of the death penalty. And both ABC and CNN have asked for copies of it to use in future reports.

That is not only free, it lends enormous credibility to the ad--and to Feinstein.

For example, if there was any question among major newspaper editors and reporters as to whether Feinstein was a viable candidate, the powerful ad and the huge movement in the polls erased that doubt.

In fact, it points up that there are actually elections within elections in modern politics and that Feinstein has clearly taken Round 1.

But Morris and Carrick agree with advisers in both the Van de Kamp and Wilson campaigns that the now-famous ad does not deserve all the credit for Feinstein’s surge in the polls.

Political hands in all three camps wonder if the commercial simply tapped into a deep undercurrent of restlessness in the electorate.

As the only woman in the race and the only candidate not from Washington or Sacramento, “Feinstein represents change when she walks into the room,” in the words of one operative.

Van de Kamp, meanwhile, seemed ineffective on his own behalf--and seemed to confirm what many had suspected, that he is vulnerable.

Both Wilson and Van de Kamp are experienced politicians with proven records. But how do they deal with Feinstein’s apparent appeal as someone who is “new and different?”

With TV ads, no doubt. Both men are expected to be on the air soon.


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