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Undercover tactics viewed as part of hardball politics

By BILL ADAIR

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 17, 2000


LOS ANGELES -- The Staples Center is a comfortable place for liberals. Delegates wear Hillary Clinton buttons and sing the praises of gun control, the environmental movement and the Kennedys.

But here, deep behind enemy lines, you'll also find Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, a foe of the Sierra Club who once complained that "weeds and bugs" had more rights than landowners.

Every day this week, the conservative congressman has been invited into the media center for a morning radio interview and then stayed to schmooze with several other news organizations.

"I'm amazed at the thirst to hear our side," he said Wednesday as he strolled out of the Democratic compound.

Bonilla is a soldier in the Republican hit squad, an aggressive team of governors and members of Congress that issues the GOP response each day. Its members are calling the Democratic event "the reinvention convention" because the party is trying to remake Vice President Al Gore's image.

The Democrats used the same trick at the Republican convention in Philadelphia, sending Gore campaign workers to the press center to distribute anti-Bush propaganda.

You might think the interlopers would be ejected the moment they were discovered, but neither party seems to mind. They accept the spy-vs-spy technique as a normal part of hardball politics in the media age.

"In Philadelphia, there were about 30 Democrats running around," said Jim Nicholson, chairman of the Republican National Committee. Relations were so cordial between the parties that James Carville, the wisecracking Democratic consultant, had drinks in Nicholson's suite.

Nicholson said Wednesday that he has spent several hours each day in the Staples Center, talking with reporters and even posing for photographs with Democratic delegates. He has received guest credentials from the TV networks so he could visit their skyboxes for interviews and also received press credentials from "friends."

Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., was seen Wednesday wearing a press credential in the media center. When asked why he was wearing it, Sanford said it was the only way he could get in the building, which has strict security.

Two weeks ago in Philadelphia, Kym Spell, Gore's deputy communications director, wore a CNN "Guest" credential as she handed out materials in the media tents. She would not say how she obtained the pass except to say it did not come from CNN.

That technique bothers David Klatell, dean of the graduate school of journalism at Columbia University. He said the political operatives should relinquish their credentials and leave as soon as they finish an interview. When politicians use the credentials to walk around the conventions, it blurs the line between journalist and politicians, he said.

But Nicholson said that is how the game is played these days.

"It's part of the process to help you get a balanced story," he told a reporter Wednesday.

Spell agreed. "Most reporters have a real desire to make sure they get both sides of the story. We wanted to make it as convenient as possible for reporters covering the Republican Convention to get our perspective on things."

In Philadelphia, the Democrats used a bus dubbed "the Rolling Donkey" to take reporters to a nearby union hall for the daily press briefing. The bus was painted with a picture of Texas Gov. George W. Bush and big smokestacks, to call attention to the poor air quality in his state.

The Democrats gave away fake movie tickets for I Know What You Did in Texas, which is actually an anti-Bush Web site.

The site lists statistics for Texas showing that it had more gun shows than any other state and that Bush signed a law "making it easier to bring guns into churches."

In Los Angeles, the Republicans are working from an office filled with Bush-Cheney signs across the street from the Staples Center. Researchers in the office are constantly checking the Democratic Web site for advance copies of convention speeches.

They fact-check the speeches and then issue "rapid-response" press releases to call attention to errors. When speeches are not available, as in the case of the Rev. Jesse Jackson on Tuesday night, the researchers watch the speeches and then move quickly when they see a mistake.

After Jackson told the convention that Republicans did not mention Africa or AIDS at their convention, it took the GOP researchers only 45 minutes to issue a "Correcting the Record" press release that showed Republican speakers had, indeed, used the words.

The GOP headquarters is a veritable quote farm where reporters can get sassy comments from Republicans to balance their stories. Every morning, a parade of GOP officials criticizes the Democratic speakers from the previous night.

On Wednesday morning, they were citing Bill Bradley's comments about millions of people being uninsured as proof that the Clinton-Gore years have been a failure.

"Bill Bradley," said Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, "is certainly an eloquent spokesman for the failures of the last eight years."

- Information from Congressional Quarterly was included in this report

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