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The Other Man Behind Gore’s Message

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TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

It’s baking inside Gore for President headquarters, and for Carter Eskew there’s no relief. As he takes a pull of mineral water, his cell phone chirps. It’s the vice president.

Again.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. July 15, 2000 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday July 15, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 5 Foreign Desk 2 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Vice presidents: A July 6 story incorrectly reported that Al Gore is attempting to become the second incumbent vice president to reach the White House in 164 years. If he wins in November, Gore would be the second incumbent vice president elected to the presidency in that time.

Eskew steps into the full blaze of the Tennessee sun and begins walking small circles in the parking lot, counseling, schmoozing and reassuring his friend and high-maintenance client. Over the course of a day, he could wear a groove in the baking blacktop.

At 46, Eskew is one of the best advertising strategists the Democratic Party has to offer. His specialty is message, distilling the essence of a candidate or cause and selling it in 60-second spots. But lately, he’s been overextended and Gore’s message has been a muddle.

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No one outside family is closer to the candidate, who shares Eskew’s prep-school pedigree and middle Tennessee roots. And no one, save Gore himself, will play a more important role deciding how and whether he becomes only the second incumbent vice president to reach the White House in 164 years.

Handling Matters Big and Small

“He’s Al Gore’s lifeline,” said campaign manager Donna Brazile. “He knows who Al Gore is, what he stands for, what he believes in.”

The relationship is a blessing and a burden. In a campaign riven by infighting, Eskew swims above the sharks, if only because everyone knows how tight he is with the boss.

But as Eskew admits, his role goes beyond any he has played in his nearly 20-year consulting career. Besides massaging the message, Eskew has handled a much broader portfolio, everything from scheduling to those pestering cell phone calls on matters big (last-minute debate strategy) and small (should the vice president call on a certain mogul while in New York?).

If Gore’s message is cluttered, maybe it’s partly because his message maven is pulled in so many directions.

A year ago, Gore’s campaign was a mess.

So he uprooted operations and moved them to Nashville, knowing only true believers would follow. Gore switched pollsters and campaign managers. And, most crucially, he reached out to Eskew, who quit politics in 1995 to join the corporate world.

Eskew’s clients included the pharmaceutical industry, health care companies and--most controversially--the tobacco industry. Indeed, in 1998, Eskew helped kill a tobacco tax by orchestrating a multimillion-dollar ad blitz that condemned “the politicians in Washington” and the “same old tax-and-spend” mentality.

If the rhetoric sounded suspiciously Republican, the cause was even more galling to the militantly anti-smoking vice president. “He made his view on that very clear,” Eskew now says. (Like Gore, Eskew is a fitness freak but vexes colleagues by piling smelly running clothes around the office.)

Whatever his qualms, Gore “needed somebody who he was intellectually and creatively comfortable with,” said one confidant. “It’s not like they complete each other’s sentences; they think the same thoughts.”

Eskew, who met Gore in the 1970s, produced ads for both his U.S. Senate campaigns, helped in his 1988 run for president and created spots for the Clinton-Gore ticket in 1992. He returned to Gore’s side, taking a leave from his business, out of “friendship and commitment,” Eskew said.

Halfhearted Journalist Leaped Into Politics

In a business rife with self-promoters and raging egoists, Gore’s reigning campaign genius is neither. Eskew’s stature confers little status. He shares a dingy office with four others and Percy, a Labrador mix.

His appearance suggests little care. The slight, sandy-haired Eskew shows up for an interview wearing rumpled Chinos and a polo shirt with a ripped sleeve.

He’s loath to comment for the record--including this article--and won’t pose for pictures. Internally, he may be the last to speak after others have their say.

But he is blunt with Gore like few others. “One of my jobs is to be as open and honest as I can,” Eskew said. “If I need to be emphatic, I’m willing to do so.”

Professionally, Eskew started as a journalist. He grew up in Washington and its upscale suburbs, the son of active Democrats and the product of prep schools and Ivy League universities.

He got his bachelor’s degree in history from Yale and a master’s in journalism from Columbia University. Eskew, whose father hailed from Tennessee, spent two summers as an intern at the Nashville paper. There he met staff writer Al Gore, who sat at the next desk.

Contrary to the popular telling, the two weren’t friends, just acquaintances. Gore, six years older, was further along in life, with a wife and child.

The leap to politics came in 1978, when Eskew joined the press staff of New York City Council President Carol Bellamy. He saw the job as a chance to help make news rather than observe it. Besides, he never much liked reporting, particularly obituaries and the requisite calls to weeping widows.

His squeamishness now seems quaint, given some of the mean-edged ads Eskew has produced. (Like the one blaming a rival candidate for almost single-handedly polluting the California coast.) “I think if I’d served in the military, I’d have been more comfortable as a pilot than an infantryman,” Eskew said, acknowledging the desire for some remove from his targets.

In 1980, Eskew worked for the losing U.S. Senate campaign of Brooklyn’s Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, where he made the crucial contact of his career, the media maestro Bob Squier.

Squier, who died of cancer in January, was one of the Democratic Party’s top strategists. He hired Eskew, and for 11 years their relationship flourished, until a bitter split when Eskew left to start his own firm. Eskew had brought Gore’s business to Squier. But the vice president stayed close to the elder consultant even after the partnership ended, putting a strain on his friendship with Eskew.

That made it all the more surprising when Gore turned to him to help save his presidential campaign.

Eskew’s ads tend to be simple, straightforward and memorable. Often the essence boils down to a single sentence: The incumbent senator is gruff, lazy and out of touch with Connecticut; the challenger sees New Jersey as a steppingstone to the White House and doesn’t really care about serving as U.S. senator.

“What he puts on the screen is very, very obvious,” said Bill Carrick, a fellow Democratic ad maker and fan of Eskew. “Many times, political ads try to reach too much. When you walk away from one of his spots, you know what you’ve seen.”

Eskew brought the same focus to Gore’s flailing campaign. He reinforced the notion of doing what worked in Tennessee, resulting in the town hall format--a candidate, a microphone and endless questions--that became the hallmark of Gore’s triumphant march through Iowa and New Hampshire.

At the same time, the combative Eskew played to the vice president’s pugnacious side, resulting in a negative campaign that, while not always fair or accurate, brutally dismantled rival Bill Bradley.

Now the question is whether candidate and consultant--both playing first-time roles--are equally suited to the challenges of a general election campaign, when tactics grow less important and broad themes are what move voters.

Consultant Role Under Question

Many doubt how much any consultant can do. “It’s not to say they won’t run an extremely good campaign,” said one Democratic operative who has worked closely with Eskew. “It doesn’t mean people won’t have a much better defined image of the candidate. But at the end of the day it gets back to Gore.”

To sharpen his message, the candidate has made yet another round of staff changes. Along with a new chairman, Bill Daley, Gore has hired Mark Fabiani, a former deputy Los Angeles mayor and crisis counselor in the Clinton White House. His job is to coordinate day-to-day operations to better communicate the campaign’s message. The idea is to lighten Eskew’s load and allow him to focus on his area of expertise: packaging Al Gore and pitching him for elected office.

This campaign for president will be the ultimate test of that salesmanship.


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