Politicians' obscurity is gone when she's Dunn

Anita Dunn's next publicity project is to elect Jim Davis.

Published July 15, 2006

Anita Dunn has polished the public images of some of the biggest names in Democratic politics: Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley and Florida's Bob Graham.

All three came with obvious assets. Obama has charisma. Bradley brought academic and athletic skills. Graham connected with people in a way that made him one of the state's most popular governors and senators.

But now Dunn, a veteran political consultant and television ad maker, is taking on a client who poses a different challenge: Jim Davis.

The Tampa congressman and candidate for governor has never run statewide, is facing a strong challenge from Democratic rival Rod Smith and may lack the millions needed for a sustained TV campaign. He is also widely perceived as the least dynamic personality in the four-man contest.

"Ads can make or break someone," said Morgan Felchner, editor of Campaigns & Elections magazine. "Candidates are more likely to win over voters with charisma. If a person lacks that, they are going to have to work a lot harder."

Dunn, however, is unfazed. "Jim Davis is an intelligent, thoughtful, hard-working public servant who has been able to bring people together," she said. "Who Jim is has done very well for him. He's never lost an election."

If anything, Davis' earnest persona is ideal for the work ahead, Dunn said.

"Television is a medium where people can get a pretty quick sense of whether somebody is mouthing what some consultant told them or whether they are speaking from the heart," she said. "Television tends to punch up conviction, commitment, and those are his strengths. Even if he wanted to change, he wouldn't because voters are interested in having the genuine article."

A long history

The two were joined through their association with Graham. Dunn worked on the senator's 1998 re-election victory over Charlie Crist, now one of two Republican candidates for governor. She also produced ads for Graham's successful Amendment 11 campaign in 2002 to change how Florida's universities are governed.

"She knows Florida," said Graham, who is chairman of the Davis campaign. "And Anita knows what's important and what's not so important ... She's one of the best." Campaign & Elections magazine called her ultra-brilliant.

Dunn, 48, got her start in the Carter administration, working for chief of staff Hamilton Jordan. She continued to work campaigns, notably Sen. John Glenn's 1984 presidential bid, until taking a staff position with Bradley. Dunn left Bradley's staff to join legendary imagemaker Bob Squier in 1993, but rejoined Bradley in 1999 to assist his presidential campaign.

She is now back at Squier Knapp Dunn Communications in Washington. Squier died of colon cancer in 2000, but the firm remains well regarded in Democratic circles.

Despite her national profile, Dunn shuns talking about herself. She politely refused an interview with the St. Petersburg Times unless questions focused on Davis. "This is about Jim," Dunn said. Though a professional imagemaker, Dunn says she is personally camera shy. A Google search turned up only one picture, a screen shot from a 1999 PBS show.

People familiar with Dunn's ad work say it tells a compelling personal narrative without being overly dramatic or contrived.

"What she does better than most is listen to a candidate and make sure that issues do not become more important than the candidate's personality, character and vision," said Dave Beattie, a Democratic pollster based in Fernandina Beach who has worked with Dunn.

Her work is also known for high production quality, Felchner said. That could be said of most national firms, Felchner acknowledged, but even the smallest differences can keep viewers from changing the channel.

"If the ads look good, people will perceive the candidate is high quality as well," Felchner said.

Dunn sees Davis in the same mold as Graham, himself never regarded as flashy. "He's thoughtful," she said of Davis, "but he also has a very firm sense of conviction."

Thoughtfulness or conviction, even on a pressing topic such as oil drilling, does not always impress crowds. Rod Smith, also seeking the Democratic vote for governor, outshines Davis at campaign events with a blend of humor and blunt statements. A Quinnipiac University poll released in late June showed Davis up 32-16 percent but the state senator from Alachua had eroded the lead.

Both men, however, suffer from lack of statewide name recognition. Nearly seven of every 10 Democrats don't know enough about Davis to form an opinion, while almost three-fourths said the same about Smith, the Quinnipiac poll found.

"Given the large, large number of people who don't have an opinion about either candidate, something is going to have to convince them how to vote, or if to vote, in the next 10 weeks," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. "Television is the obvious candidate to do that."

Getting the message out in Florida takes tremendous resources, and the Democrats have far less money than the Republicans. It costs about $1.4-million plus to run an ad statewide for a week.

As of the most recently available figures, Davis has raised $2.9-million He has yet to run an ad. Crist, the Republican front-runner, has raised $10.6-million in cash and already has run four TV spots, one in Spanish.

Smith, of course, has his own Anita Dunn, someone who will shape his television image. Stan Adkins of Coral Gables will fill that role. But the Smith campaign says he does not need to be coached.

"As part of his campaign staff, I could never write a speech or sound bite for him that would be as good as what he comes up with," said spokesman David Kochman. Smith often jokes that while he has high-paid consultants, he doesn't listen to them.

Issues and experience

Dunn would reveal few details about her plans, including when spots will air, but said the message will be consistent with what Davis has offered thus far. On the campaign trail, he has touted proposals for storm insurance and higher teacher pay.

One area Dunn might mine for ad material is Davis' nearly 20-year experience in both the state House and in Congress. He is the only candidate with national credentials. "The fact is, as we all know, understanding both places is increasingly critical," Dunn said.

Davis is also the only candidate who has not been divorced or had other personal issues in the news. He lives by all accounts a squeaky-clean life with his wife, Peggy, and two sons, Peter and William.

It's not hard to imagine TV ads with Davis surrounded by his family and saying he understands what public schools are like or how rising insurance costs affect household spending decisions.

"In many ways," Dunn said, "he's your typical Floridian. He's serious about Florida, and I think voters are in a serious mood, too. This is not a time where people are casting votes lightly."

Alex Leary can be reached at aleary@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.