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Stumbling and Bumbling Along the Campaign Trail : Politics: UCSD symposium hears experts tell of their presidential candidates’ verbal and visual fiascoes.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is every presidential campaign manager’s worst nightmare: the moment when, despite their best efforts to carefully orchestrate each facet of the race for the White House, their candidate, in the words of NBC News commentator John Chancellor, does some “damn fool” thing that sends the campaign careening wildly out of control.

In the case of President Gerald Ford, it was his remark in a 1976 televised debate that Eastern Europe was not under Communist domination. His opponent, Jimmy Carter, stumbled when he spoke of “lust in my heart” in a Playboy Magazine interview. And one of the lingering images of the 1988 presidential race is a photo of Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis wearing a helmet while riding in a tank--looking, Chancellor joked, “like the cover of Mad Magazine.”

When Chancellor asked seven men and one woman who have run presidential campaigns since 1960 how they handled such crises, GOP strategist Stuart Spencer’s remarks at Thursday’s opening session of a three-day symposium on presidential politics at UC San Diego were as instructive as they were humorous.

“I said, ‘Oooooohhhhh! We’ve got a problem !”’ answered a grimacing Spencer, recalling his reaction to Ford’s ill-fated remark with a lament that epitomized the frustration and helplessness that the others admitted they had felt amid similar campaign debacles.

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Blending colorful campaign war stories with insights forged from experience, the campaign managers, who have been involved in presidential races from the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon election through the 1988 Bush-Dukakis contest, reminisced about their own campaigns in a search for lessons that could serve as guideposts for future presidential strategists.

Moderated by Chancellor, the two-hour program was broadcast in San Diego on KPBS-TV Thursday night and is scheduled to be aired nationwide on public television next month.

If the four Democrats and four Republicans agreed on anything, it was that, however assiduously they seek to control the campaign’s overriding themes and messages to voters, luck--good and bad--is often as crucial an element in many campaigns as it is utterly unpredictable.

“In politics, you have controllables and uncontrollables,” said Edward Rollins, who directed Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign. “You better hit 100% on the controllables, because there’s always some uncontrollable element out there that you misfire on.”

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Most campaign fiascoes, they agreed, stem from the candidates’ missteps, whether they be an unfortunate choice of words, ill-advised actions or the kind of incident that simply leaves the candidate looking silly and “unpresidential,” as with Dukakis’ tank excursion.

Democratic nominee George McGovern, for example, made a volatile situation worse in 1972 by announcing his “1,000% support” for running mate Thomas Eagleton even as pressure to drop him from the ticket was building amid disclosures about his psychiatric-care history.

High-stakes strategic decisions--"rolls of the dice,” in the managers’ lexicon--also sometimes quickly rewrite campaign scripts, as evidenced by a controversial television ad used in Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 campaign.

Intended to raise doubts about Republican Barry Goldwater’s temperament to govern in a nuclear age, the ad--which was broadcast only once but remains arguably the most notorious political commercial of the past quarter century--depicted a young girl plucking the petals of a daisy while a stern voice intoned a countdown, followed by a photo of a mushroom cloud.

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Though Johnson strategist Horace Busby called the commercial “a very dumb ad” that produced a backlash, the other managers argued that it accomplished its purpose by raising the “finger-on-the-button question” and helped contribute to Johnson’s landslide victory.

Moreover, for all the controversy that the so-called “daisy ad” engendered then and since, Joseph Napolitan, a top aide in Hubert Humphrey’s 1968 race, contended that it “pales in significance” when contrasted with more recent “hit” ads--notably, Bush’s 1988 ad faulting then-Massachusetts Gov. Dukakis for having paroled Willie Horton, a black man convicted of murder, who, while on parole, raped a white woman. The commercial was widely criticized as having strong racial overtones.

Even when the white-hot controversies produced by such “uncontrollables” threatened to instantaneously unravel months of planning, most of the campaign managers admitted that they had difficulty confronting their candidate over the verbal or strategic gaffes.

“I never found it to be easy to look at my candidate in the eye and say, ‘Why did you do that unbelievably stupid thing?’ ” said Dukakis’ campaign manager, Susan Estrich.

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That deference raises another critical question: Who really runs presidential campaigns--the managers or the candidates themselves?

Echoing his colleagues’ sentiments, former Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), who ran McGovern’s 1972 race and unsuccessfully sought the 1984 and 1988 Democratic nominations himself, said that, increasingly, managers focus on the “mechanical things"--strategy, the development of nationwide organizations--while candidates develop the themes intended to move voters.

Downplaying their own significance, the managers added that inevitably, it is the candidates--not the strategists--who win and lose elections.

“A campaign manager is like a jockey,” Rollins explained. “If you’ve got a great horse, all you’ve got to do is make sure you don’t fall off the horse and get him around the track. . . . But, if you’ve got a bad horse, the best jockey, Willie Shoemaker, is not going to take a horse that runs in the county fair and make him win the Kentucky Derby.”

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Acknowledging the myriad changes seen in presidential politics over the past three decades, the managers agreed that the spread of delegate-selection primaries and the weakening of political parties have transformed the once-critical quadrennial national conventions into relatively meaningless spectacles with little impact on campaigns’ outcomes.

They also decried the often rushed, unstructured process that presidential candidates use to select their vice presidential running mates--a system that, they argued, provides too little scrutiny of politicians who, historically, have a 1-in-3 chance of becoming president.

Occasionally, bizarre attempts at political one-upmanship have been factored in along with the individuals’ qualifications as ingredients in selecting vice presidential nominees.

Robert Finch explained that one factor in Nixon’s selection of Henry Cabot Lodge in 1960 was his attempt to prove that he did not need a ticket-balancing running mate in the way that John Kennedy needed Johnson to help carry Texas and the South.

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Because Lodge came from Kennedy’s home state of Massachusetts, Finch said, it was obvious that he had not been picked because of his ability to deliver another state to the GOP ticket.

Thursday’s session also saw some good-natured attempts at historical revisionism, as some former managers sought to cast losses at the polls as long-range successes. Goldwater strategist Richard Kleindienst, for instance, noted that both Reagan and Bush told Goldwater on his 80th birthday that they owed their victories to the changes within the Republican Party begun by his own lopsided defeat.

“We didn’t lose,” Kleindienst said, smiling wryly. “He was John the Baptist for a whole new dimension of politics.”

Spencer, meanwhile, drew perhaps the day’s loudest laughter when he related an anecdote about how events in Eastern Europe have converted Ford’s memorable 1976 blunder about the absence of Communist domination in that region into reality.

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“Last year, when Poland broke free . . . I played golf with President Ford,” Spencer said. “And he said, ‘God damn it, I was right!’ ”


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