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Graham boiling theme down to 30 seconds

By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 6, 2003

photo
[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
A TV plays Bob Graham advertisments and interviews during an August stop in Des Moines, Iowa.

WASHINGTON - In a darkened basement known as "Megan's Dungeon," the TV and computer screens will soon be flashing with images of Sen. Bob Graham.

Megan's Dungeon is the editing room for media consultants Karl Struble and David Eichenbaum, the place where they will create TV commercials for Graham's presidential campaign. It is named for their editor Megan Sullivan, who pieces together the ads using an arsenal of computers and videotape machines. She spends long days and nights at the consoles but says she occasionally emerges from the dungeon "for human contact."

Struble and Eichenbaum will film Graham over the next few weeks and expect to air the ads soon in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first states to choose delegates. With polls showing Graham at only 1 percent in those states, the ads come at a critical time. The Florida senator urgently needs to show he's a viable candidate.

Struble said the ads will introduce Graham to voters and "reveal his depth and thoughtfulness and strength of character."

That will be challenging in the confines of 30-second TV spots. Graham is known for his mastery of complex issues, but his wordy sentences are not well-suited for the snappy sound bites of TV.

Struble acknowledged the senator "is so detail-oriented that he doesn't want to leave a detail out when he speaks," but Struble said the ads will do a good job conveying Graham's experience and ideas.

"This guy is more knowledgeable than anybody else in this race," Struble said.

Picking oranges

TV ads played a big role in Graham's rise in Florida.

They helped him break out of the pack in 1978 when he was a long-shot candidate for governor and since then have cemented his status as the state's most popular Democrat.

The ads, produced by legendary consultant Bob Squier, emphasized Graham's workdays, his well-chronicled practice of spending a day in someone else's job. The ads showed Graham picking oranges, driving a truck, pouring concrete, serving food and picking up garbage.

"Bob Graham," the announcer intoned. "Working for Florida."

Graham has never been regarded as a dynamic speaker, but the uniqueness of workdays made up for that. Several ads mentioned how the workdays inspired Graham to support certain bills.

One such ad, in his 1998 re-election campaign, recounted his workday with a police officer ("Bob Graham was with me in the squad car when the call came out ...") and said it prompted Graham to support anticrime measures.

The police officer ended the spot by saying, "Bob Graham's different. He understands my job first-hand."

Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist who studied the workday ads when he wrote a 1981 book about political consultants, said the working for Florida theme struck a chord with voters.

"Squier and Graham built the entire campaign around a slogan," Sabato said. The ads "managed to break through the clutter."

But Sabato said that formula won't necessarily work in a presidential campaign. He said workdays are "not so special any more. Literally dozens and dozens of campaigns have done workdays and the technique is known in most states."

Anita Dunn, who worked with Squier on several Graham campaigns but is not working on his presidential race, disagreed. She said workday ads can be effective in this campaign because "they are a tested way of communicating his personal value system with voters."

TV spots allow voters "to feel like they are having a conversation with the candidate," Dunn said. "That's always something Bob Graham has been able to do well."

"Flavor of the month'

Struble was recently called one of the hottest political consultants in the nation by Campaigns & Elections magazine. Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist says he liked Struble and Eichenbaum because "I not only felt they believed in me, but I felt they hated my opponent."

Struble is a longtime Democratic operative who served as a field director for Jimmy Carter's campaign in 1980 and spent much of his career focused on grass roots campaigning. Eichenbaum is a former actor who managed a Senate campaign for Geraldine Ferraro and was communications director for the Democratic National Committee.

Their six-person agency has done TV ads for Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and has recently worked for several Southern Democrats similar to Graham, including Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Max Cleland of Georgia.

In those races, the consultants took a page from the Republican playbook to make the candidates more appealing to GOP voters. An ad about Pryor's frugal habits featured the announcer saying, "Mark Pryor - just plain conservative with your money." An ad for a Utah congressional candidate said, "I know you can't always trust the federal government."

Graham's ads are expected to begin running in the next couple of weeks. His strategists won't say how much they plan to spend to air them, but campaigns typically spend $40,000 per week in New Hampshire and $150,000 per week in Iowa.

Scripts for the Graham TV spots are still being developed and Struble would not discuss details about them. But he said they will feature Graham talking to the camera and won't be the music video ads that some candidates have used.

"Music video ads are not Bob Graham," he said. "This guy is thoughtful and methodical and that's how he must be portrayed."

They also will not be negative ads, he said. The primary goal will be to introduce Graham to voters who don't know him.

The only footage shot so far comes from Graham's campaign announcement in May and his family's Iowa vacation in August. The Iowa footage, shot by Graham's son-in-law, William McCullough, a filmmaker, includes lots of behind-the-scenes moments of Graham and his family.

The consultants had two cameras filming the May 6 announcement in Miami Lakes, but Graham's speech did not provide the harvest of sound bites the consultants had wanted. Graham was unable to use the TelePrompTer because of the bright sun and ended up reading his speech from the lectern. His slow and halting delivery did not produce many made-for-TV moments.

Struble blames himself for the TelePrompTer problems. "That was my fault, not his. We put him in a terrible position." That setback shouldn't affect the TV spots because they expect to get plenty of good footage in the next few weeks, he said. They also might use footage of Graham's NASCAR truck, which is part of the senator's effort to attract rural Democrats.

Struble says political campaigns need to be swift - and patient.

In the heat of battle, they need to respond to charges quickly. He is especially proud of an ad he and Eichenbaum produced in the Louisiana Senate runoff last year that was written, produced and aired within 24 hours.

But in Graham's case, Struble says the results will take time.

He estimated the polls will show Graham moves up slightly after the first ads appear, but he won't make a dramatic gain.

"You grow slowly," Struble said. "By the first of January, we might be at 6 or 8 percent. And then, all of a sudden, it will (grow rapidly) in the last weeks before the election."

Struble said presidential campaigns go in predictable cycles: "The goal is not to be the flavor of the month now. You want the explosion in January."

- Staff writer Bill Adair can be reached at 202 463-0575 or adair@sptimes.com


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