It was late afternoon when Larry McCarthy arrived at the recording studio where he would begin constructing his next political commercial.
As the 42-year-old video craftsman, whose ads have shaped the images of Presidents, worked into the night, 3,000 miles away Sen. Dianne Feinstein was starting to broadcast the first television ad of her reelection campaign--a blistering attack on McCarthy’s client, Republican challenger Mike Huffington.
McCarthy had only a few hours to work. For even as the counterattack flickered to life on the screens of the dimly lighted studio, Huffington media buyers were lining up air time for the next day.
The 30-second ad took about seven hours to make. By the time McCarthy left the studio, shortly before midnight, he had listened to the opening line so many times it echoed in his head: “As polls show her dropping, Feinstein attacks Mike Huffington on taxes.” Tomorrow, he knew, more than 10 million Californians would hear that line about the time they sat down to the evening news.
Political observers across the country are watching California’s U.S. Senate race like a bunch of car lovers mesmerized by a Ferrari Testarossa. A formidable incumbent and early favorite has been forced into a fight for survival by a wealthy, once obscure, freshman congressman willing to bankroll the most expensive congressional campaign in history.
In a state the size of California, campaigns are measured in their ability to deliver their messages, and Huffington has been offering a unique display of the political power of money and television.
Good ideas and popular issues are important, but they are like a powerful train with no track to run on unless a candidate can reach the voters through TV.
Most candidates can only afford to use television selectively, often saving for a big push in the final days before the election. Huffington, catapulted into the spotlight by several million dollars in ads, moved from being virtually unknown statewide to running nearly even with Feinstein in the polls by early summer.
Late in the primary campaign, a worried Feinstein decided to launch her own TV ads. Huffington’s staff--including a dream team of veteran strategists--responded quickly and forcefully to every Feinstein commercial. In some cases, McCarthy and the Huffington team worked around the clock and coast to coast, to create, produce and distribute a direct response ad in less than 24 hours.
And whatever television time Feinstein purchased, the Huffington team bought more.
When the two-month cross fire ended in August, a statewide poll found Feinstein clinging to a six-point lead, about the same one she held in June.
“I’ve never seen it (a candidate’s counterattack) done this fast before,” said William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “The bottom-line effect is that it just cuts off the effectiveness of many (of Feinstein’s) charges.”
Most professional campaign managers can only fantasize about such response, particularly so early and often in a campaign. Feinstein, for example, has responded directly to only one of Huffington’s critical ads--and then after a six-day lag.
Observers from both major parties say Huffington’s quick-response strategy is what you would expect if you combined a team of top national strategists with enough money to finance their best ideas.
When Huffington’s counterattacks began, finance records show, his campaign was spending more than $100,000 a day, much of it on television. At the same time, Feinstein, one of Washington’s top fund-raisers was spending $62,000 a day on her campaign, also largely on TV ads.
“To be real candid, I have never worked on a campaign with an open budget--and I work on many campaigns all over the country,” said David Bienstock, a Republican media strategist currently with Gov. Pete Wilson’s reelection campaign. “It must be very difficult for Feinstein.”
Feinstein adviser William Carrick acknowledges that his side is well aware of Huffington’s techniques. “I’m glad that we have held our own while we’ve been outspent 3-to-2,” he said. “It was our intention to keep him from getting up any head of steam.”
Last-minute decisions in a political campaign can be expensive and difficult. When Huffington decided to respond quickly to Feinstein’s attack barrage in June, he paid premium rates for some of the broadcast time. One Democratic media buyer said Huffington paid $18,000 for a spot in Los Angeles that bumped another commercial from its prime-time slot.
The logistics are also daunting. After the first quick-response commercial was produced in Washington, D.C., more than 40 videotapes had to be delivered to TV stations throughout California hours later. The video was transmitted cross-country through fiber-optic cables. Then, for some remote stations, copies were flown out of San Francisco by a campaign staff member.
“The Huffington campaign has probably been the most vivid demonstration of the advantage of sheer financial firepower,” said Darry Sragow, a Democratic political consultant. “When you have the kind of money he has available to spend, you are, by definition, going to be competitive.”
Sragow and other strategists said most campaigns must weigh the cost of every decision--when to go on television, for how long and even whether to respond to an opponent’s attack.
Huffington, they said, has the advantage of making decisions based exclusively on tactical merit.
Huffington (R-Santa Barbara) is paying almost his entire campaign bill from a fortune--estimated at about $70 million--gained in the 1990 sale of his family’s Texas petroleum company. Already, he has given his Senate campaign at least $10 million, setting a record for the most personal money ever spent in a congressional race.
By contrast, Feinstein spent $8 million to unseat appointed Republican Sen. John Seymour in 1992. She has spent about $6.5 million in the current campaign.
High technology makes it possible for campaigns to attack quickly. But experts said the most important ingredient in making a rapid-response strategy work is the people involved--a candidate who can delegate and make up his mind quickly and a team of consultants who know what to do.
The team at Huffington headquarters in Costa Mesa includes some of the nation’s most decorated political generals. Their past campaigns include Nixon ’72, Reagan ’80 and ’84, Bush ’88 and Dole ’88. In political circles, most are far better known than Huffington.
In campaigns, such shared experience is significant. It means that the personalities are well-known, the talents are established and respected, and there is a consensus around the table about how campaigns are run.
“You can basically say something and in 10 seconds the person understands you,” said McCarthy. “Technology is not the key to the fast response, the keys are preparation and decisiveness. You can be in campaigns where you just debate about response for two or three days and you’ve lost your edge. This is a very decisive campaign. We don’t screw around pondering up or down, right or left, red or blue.”
McCarthy is best known for his work with George Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign. He created the infamous ad against Michael Dukakis that featured Willie Horton, the Massachusetts felon who raped a woman while on a furlough.
McCarthy worked on two gubernatorial races in California--1984 and 1990--with Huffington adviser Ken Khachigian, a San Clemente consultant and former speech writer for Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Huffington’s lead strategist, Edward J. Rollins, was Reagan’s campaign manager in 1984. In Kansas Sen. Bob Dole’s 1988 bid for the White House, McCarthy teamed up with Huffington’s pollster, Richard Wirthlin.
However, the starting place for fast response is the candidate himself. Aides say Huffington has made quick decisions about his commercials and is not squeamish about hard-hitting attack ads. They also say he trusts his advisers.
“The final decision is mine,” Huffington said in a recent interview. “But I always let them come up with ideas. . . . There is no point in hiring good people if you’re going to dictate to them what everything is.”
The planning of the counterattack began on Memorial Day weekend. Huffington’s team gathered at campaign headquarters for an all-day session to prepare for the Feinstein attacks they calculated were soon to air.
Wirthlin provided a snapshot of where the race stood in the polls. An opposition researcher presented the campaign’s dirt on Feinstein. McCarthy, playing devil’s advocate, passed out scripts for five commercials he figured the Democrats might use, along with suggested responses.
Two days later, the Republicans picked up the first signs of an imminent attack. Feinstein’s campaign was calling television stations around the state to purchase time for an ad starting June 1.
Buying TV time in political campaigns is often a game of hide-and-seek or bait-and-switch. Frequently, when one candidate buys time for a commercial, the station’s sales staff will call the opposition to try to tease them into buying a spot too. Many times, campaigns will also reserve time with no intention of using it, only as a ruse.
Huffington’s team believed the Feinstein buys were probably authentic and on May 31, McCarthy assembled the staff and equipment he would need to respond. He reserved a computer graphics staff to construct the ad, hired an announcer and found an editing studio where the components could be blended into the final product.
The campaign also began purchasing time slots on television stations around California to air its counterattack.
But Huffington’s people still had no idea what Feinstein’s commercial would be about. That would be learned the next afternoon, on June 1, a few hours before the commercial went on the air.
“Part of this is like the old child’s game, telephone--somebody tells somebody who tells somebody,” McCarthy said. “Reporters would call the campaign and ask for reaction (to Feinstein’s ad), and that’s the first inkling we had about what exactly she was going to say.”
Feinstein’s attack was sharp. It accused Huffington of being a millionaire Texas carpetbagger and suggested he had dodged his California taxes.
McCarthy, Huffington, Khachigian, Wirthlin and others joined in a conference call to discuss their response.
As it turned out, the theme of Feinstein’s commercial matched one of McCarthy’s predictions. A counterattack script he had already proposed was approved on the phone with minor changes. By that evening, McCarthy finally had everything in place to begin making the commercial.
For the next several hours, his job was something like that of an orchestra conductor. He juggled staffs in three high-tech studios, each working on a different part of the ad.
The commercial took shape in a computer graphics room known as the “paint box.” McCarthy’s instructions to Jane Hutchins, the “paint-box artist,” were simple: “I just said give me a nice background.” Hutchins’ desk looks like it’s part airplane cockpit and part sketch pad. When she works, she watches a brightly colored video screen to see the scribbles she makes by drawing with an electronic pen on her desktop.
The computer work took about three hours. On top of a powdery, magenta background, Hutchins added snapshots of the candidates and words from the script. Out of necessity, the ad was structurally simple. There were no moving pictures. Only words, still pictures and sound.
“I wanted to keep the commercial simple, that was my point,” said Huffington adviser Carlos Rodriguez. “We weren’t going to win any creative awards here. If you can get creative and effective, that’s great. But I’ll go for just effective anytime.”
Nearby, but in another building, an announcer recorded the script on an audiotape that was carried to McCarthy’s studio.
All of the components were combined onto videotape in the editing studio, with McCarthy and his technicians. The editing process took about four hours. Shortly before midnight in Washington, the 30-second commercial was completed. McCarthy walked it up the street about two blocks to another studio, where it was transmitted to dubbing stations in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Overnight, the dubbing stations made more than 40 copies. And by morning, they were delivered throughout California, some by messenger and some by campaign staff. Total cost of producing the ad: about $5,000.
The commercial denied Feinstein’s charge that Huffington avoided paying his California taxes. It went on to attack the Democrat, saying she, also a millionaire, had not paid federal taxes in some years.
By the evening of June 2, more than 10 million people throughout California had seen the commercial--within 24 hours of Feinstein’s, and only hours after McCarthy stepped into his studio.
The Making of a Huffington Ad
By spending more than $10 million of his own money, Republican Senate candidate Mike Huffington has financed unprecedented campaign tactics. Huffington has leveled the race with Democrat Dianne Feinstein partly by responding quickly and massively to Feinstein’s television ads.
* In Costa Mesa, Huffington’s media buyer learns that rival Feinstein is purchasing time for a new commercial to begin the next day.
* In Washington, a Huffington ad maker reserves time at a video editing studio, orders time and staff for work on a graphics computer and hires an announcer.
* In Costa Mesa, the media buyer starts lining up time for an ad to show June 2.
Mid to late afternoon
* Political reporters seek the candidate’s reaction to the not-yet-broadcast Feinstein commercial.
* Based on the second-hand descriptions, Huffington and his team agree by conference call on a response: a script worked up earlier in anticipation of the attack strategy.
Late afternoon to evening
* Feinstein’s ad begins airing.
* In Washington, the ad maker assembles his crew at the studios, working on graphics and sound. Both steps take about three hours.
* The elements are combined in an editing studio; a 30-second videotape is created in about four hours.
Just before midnight
* The completed video tape is transmitted to dubbing stations in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
* Together, the dubbing stations reproduce about 40 copies of the commercial.
* The tapes are distributed to TV stations throughout the state, some by messenger, others by campaign staff.
* Huffington’s commercial is on the air with a bigger purchase of ad time than Feinstein had. It is seen by more than 10 million people.