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STUART SPENCER HAS A FEW ZINGERS LEFT

Mark Z. Barabak is a Times staff writer who covers politics. He last wrote for the magazine about Arnold Schwarzenegger's political aspirations.

High above Palm Springs, past the intersection of Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra drives, lives a celebrity of a different sort, a man as famous and influential in his way as either of those two legends. There is no desert boulevard immortalizing Stuart K. Spencer. Not even a side street or alley. But of the three men, he arguably had the most important impact on world events, helping shape history from a place just offstage. Along with his business partner, the late Bill Roberts, Spencer virtually invented the modern practice of political consulting. More importantly, Spencer and Roberts took a washed-up movie actor, Ronald Reagan, and cast him as something new and vibrant, something they called a “citizen-politician.” With their assistance, Reagan romped to the California governorship and, eventually, the White House.

Not bad, Spencer says, for a guy who started with $500, a degree from Cal State Los Angeles and dreams (back when he ran the city parks in Alhambra) of coaching big-time college football. On a playing field or inside a smoky back room, competition, not ideology, is what has always driven Spencer. This is not to say that he lacks a strong set of core beliefs--those might surprise people who associate him with Reagan’s iconic conservatism.

Now 75, Spencer is semiretired and living the luxe life with his wife, Barbara. There is the posh home in Palm Desert (two hip replacements keep him off his private tennis court), an Oregon ranch where he spends summers, and a condo in Maui for golf getaways. He does a bit of lobbying--"influence peddling,” as he calls it--and dispenses wisdom via phone and fax to a generation of campaign disciples who revere the salty Spencer as a kind of mountaintop sage. There are no regrets. “Anything I did, I did ... met a lot of great people. Met a lot of [jerks]. I saw a lot of the world.”

The present and future, though, are cause for concern. He laments the state of modern political campaigning--"the monster Bill and I created"--with its reductive emphasis on polling, focus groups and fund-raising. And he worries about the continued viability of the Republican Party, particularly in California, where the GOP is struggling to shed an image of exclusion and intolerance.

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“You have to show some openness to bring people in and let the debate rage within the party,” he says. “I mean, as long as we’re going to be a basically two-party state or nation, there’s going to have to be a lot of room in both parties for points of view. The Democrats since the Clinton era ... have really broadened their base. They’ve moved toward the middle ... a lot. I think the Republicans got to sort of do the same thing.”

For his valedictory, Spencer has turned the courtship of estranged Latinos into something of a personal crusade. “Our party has a sad and politically self-defeating history of alienating immigrant groups and new voters,” he said in a scathing assessment, dispatched five years ago as an open letter to fellow Republicans. “The GOP closed the door to the Irish and the Italian immigrants in Massachusetts and New York in the last century. We did the same to Poles and other Eastern Europeans in Chicago and other urban centers.”

With the explosive growth of the Latino population, today’s choice is simple, Spencer said: The Republican Party can change, or consign itself to permanent minority status.

Stu Spencer is hosting lunch, root beer and sandwiches, in the super-sized RV garage he turned into his home office. He is wearing blue shorts, deck shoes, little white ankle socks and a gray-striped polo shirt splotched with mustard, which he has not bothered to change for company. His flagrant disregard for fashion is notorious. (People still talk of the purple double-knit suit he wore during the Gerald Ford administration.)

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Photos from the Reagan years show him alongside Ronald and Nancy--at the White House, traveling aboard Air Force One--with tie askew, collar undone and shirttail flapping out the side. Call it sloppiness. Others see a welcome lack of pretense and pomposity, which helps explain how Spencer became such a valued advisor to Reagan and many other politicians. “There’s an absence of arrogance, of attitude and posturing on his part, that’s refreshing in this business,” says Don Sipple, a Republican campaign strategist who has known and admired Spencer for close to 30 years.

That contempt for stuffiness and self-import also helps explain why Spencer never moved to Washington--"a phony town,” he harrumphs. It also kept him off the public payroll--"dealing with the bureaucracy, I would’ve gone nuts or gone to jail.” Instead Spencer played an unpaid but vital behind-the-scenes role during Reagan’s two White House terms. When Donald Regan, the imperious chief of staff, had to go, it was Spencer who flew to Washington to help push him out. When the Soviet Union shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007 in 1983, killing 269 passengers and sending Cold War shudders across the continent, it was Spencer who demanded--profanely--that the vacationing president “come down off the mountain and read a statement.” Reagan resisted, but gave in.

Spencer is renowned for just that sort of unvarnished advice. When he worked for President Ford in 1976 (during his one serious split with Reagan), it fell to Spencer to dissuade the hapless campaigner from venturing too far beyond the Rose Garden. Others hemmed and hawed. “Forgive me, Mr. President,” Spencer told him, “but as much as you love it, you’re a [expletive] campaigner.”

He pulled it all off with a wink and a smile. He was blunt-spoken, fought hard and sometimes played mean. (In 1976, when Reagan ran against Ford in the Republican primary, Spencer produced a Reagan-is-warmonger ad and aired it in his home state of California just to give him fits.) But for all of the obvious irreverence, Spencer always abided by his own quiet code of honor. He would never back a challenger against an incumbent, hence his work for Ford. It was always a respectful “Mr. President,” even alone between the two of them. And he never cashed in by writing one of those tell-all tomes, despite lucrative opportunities. It is wrong, he says, to know a man intimately, to watch up close as he falters and flails, then turn a profit on his trust.

He was born Stuart Murphy, but took the name of the man who raised him. A. Kenneth Spencer was a GOP activist who helped Richard M. Nixon win his first race for Congress. Stu Spencer was politically indifferent; after leaving the Navy, he cast his first presidential vote for Democrat Harry Truman, though he later came to like Ike.

In 1954, Spencer was working for the parks department in Alhambra and recruiting for the Junior Chamber of Commerce when a Republican up-and-comer, John Rousselot, made an offer: He would join the Chamber if Spencer would join the GOP. Spencer took to politics right away--it was like sports, with winners and losers--and after volunteering in a series of campaigns, he eventually got a job as an organizer for the Los Angeles County GOP. There he met Bill Roberts, a former TV salesman. After a year working for the party, they left and started their own firm with a $1,000 stake. They flipped a quarter. Spencer called heads and won, so Spencer-Roberts it was.

Philosophic purity was no virtue; pragmatism was no vice. They worked for everyone in the Republican Party--from the archconservative Rousselot, winning him a House seat, to the left-leaning U.S. Sen. Tom Kuchel. It was only later, when they could afford it, that Spencer-Roberts became more selective in its clientele.

Spencer calls himself a moderate Republican. He hates big government and believes in a strong defense. He favors legalized abortion, affirmative action and certain gun controls. He disdains the pigeon-holing nature of political debate. “We live in a single-issue society,” he says. “I am not a single-issue person.”

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Reagan may have been conservative, but he was practical, too, and that may explain their kinship. Both men liked to win.

Spencer relates the famous story of how Reagan ended up hiring Spencer-Roberts to manage his successful 1966 run for governor. Working for Nelson Rockefeller in the 1964 presidential primary, the pair ran a vicious campaign against Barry Goldwater, falling just shy of an upset. About a year later, Reagan visited Goldwater, who told him, “If I ran in California, I’d hire those sons of bitches Spencer-Roberts.”

Spencer laughs, a deep, rich guffaw. “It shows the pragmatism of Ronald Reagan,” he says. “He knew what we did.”

In the last few years, Spencer has taken to chiding his fellow Republicans for squandering the good will of Latino voters, speaking bitterly from personal experience. In the 1950s, as a Republican Party volunteer, he opened a community service center in East Los Angeles, offering free polio shots, immigration counseling and legal advice. “I was trying to plant a seed,” he says. As soon as he quit the party post, the GOP shut the center down.

More recently, he blames former Gov. Pete Wilson, a decades-old friend, for turning illegal immigration into a wedge issue in his 1994 reelection campaign. “Did a lot for Wilson,” he says. “Didn’t do a lot for the party.”

Even after 40 years and, by his estimation, 400 campaigns, Spencer still relishes a good political scrap. He leans forward, sweeping his thick forearms back and forth across the table, as he sizes up the governor’s race in Hawaii. His friend, Linda Lingle, is vying to end years of Democratic rule by purging the puritans and litmus-testers from the Republican establishment. It is a model, he suggests, for California’s struggling GOP.

“She took over the party chairmanship, she wiped all those sons of bitches out of the party that had their single issues they wanted to worry about. Took abortion out of the platform, period. And she’s got her state committee, which is a cross-section of niseis [second-generation Japanese Americans], Hawaiians ... the whole thing. Win or lose, the Republican Party in Hawaii is going to be a FAC-tor,” he says, chortling.

It is an infectious laugh--filled with years of hope and cynicism and knowledge that comes from many decades down.

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