When a Campaign Is Laughing, It's in Trouble

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Under pressure: George W. Bush listens to reporters' questions in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — The morning began with rats over omelets at the grand Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida.

The New York Times was reporting that a Bush ad attacking Al Gore's prescription drug plan spelled out the word "RATS" in a single thirtieth-of-a- second frame. Was it a subliminal dig at the vice president or a chance result from the computerized video effect used in the ad to scramble up and respell the word "bureaucrats"?

Seated in their tastefully embroidered chairs, reporters lined up the evidence on each side of the issue. Alex Castellanos, the author of the ad, was well known to everyone as a tough, mean message masseur. "RATS" was perfectly framed in the screen, while the other letters in the special effect bounced randomly across the screen to the beat of background music. On the other side of the argument the case was made that it was a pretty lame gambit, lacking such art that it must be a mistake.

The back-and-forth over breakfast was probably the day's most reasonable conversation. Minutes later the candidate was on "Good Morning America" and Diane Sawyer was asking him about the ad. The Pack was off. Among the stories being ignored that day was what the campaign is actually planning to do, which is go strongly negative. But the rest of the day Bush and his aides were ducking rat questions.

The Frat Boy's Back

This is what life is like inside the oil drum. Each morning Bush wakes up in its dim light and tries to poke his head out to the world. It starts with a "message of the day," which he tries to eke past a press corps that, with polls tightening and a real race going, isn't letting much pass before they bring up what they want to talk about. Which usually results in a pounding and a walloping, distracting and disorienting the candidate.

The good pols know what they should do when taking a drubbing — wait it out. Gore made it through his hazing. In the Republican primaries John McCain couldn't, lashing out at conservative leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell in a way that came across as just so much screedy bleating. Now Bush must press on without the overreaction that can sink candidates.

The ad fiasco reminds us of Bob Dole's fall from the stage in Chico, Calif., late in his 1996 campaign. It wasn't anything in particular that Dole did, but the mishap confirmed some of the worst fears about the candidate: that he was old, had old policies and was running a faltering campaign. The same might be said here too for Bush. The ad makes him look underhanded and excessively juvenile in a frat-boy kind of way. Coming after last week's barnyard epithet, it makes the "change the tone, bring honor and dignity" crusade look a little thin.

And in more than a little trouble. When the first response from the campaign is laughter, it usually means the campaign is teetering. Bush communications director Karen Hughes said she first heard of the ad's hidden message last night when a colleague called her laughing. Hughes said she, too, had burst out laughing when she saw the controversial "hatchet lady" TV spot of a few weeks ago attacking Gore's character, and that ad turned out to be a disaster.

Airport anxiety

When he arrived at the Orlando airport Governor Bush patiently walked to the microphones with one of those "tax families" that have become a staple prop used to explain how his tax plan helps real people. Bowing his head almost as in prayer, he read their vital statistics from the prepared briefing book. "Juan and Brenda Hector make $45,000, have two children," read the candidate to the profoundly uninterested press corps. Soon you could hear the clubs coming out of their cases. Nearly the second he'd finished giving the two-minute introduction to what in a perfect world would be a symphony of questions about tax rates, fairness and Gore's meager plans, there came a different chorus. Did they know about the RATS wording? No. Would they pull the ad? It was coming out of the normal rotation today anyway, a response about five Americans outside the ad community understands.

Bang, Bazooom, Boing went the questions off the tin sides. The Hector family watched the hectoring in a daze, Brenda holding on to her young daughter like a bag of flour. And when you're in the drum you can't hear yourself speak, which was on display again today as the governor repeatedly referred to the "sub-lim-in-able" message in his advertising. Earlier, Bush had denied a Vanity Fair report that he might have dyslexia.

The story had begun the night before as it ricocheted through the bar late last night; rival papers phoned their desks trying to find out who was calling whom a rat and in what context. Without knowing what the story was, a major daily called the Gore campaign for reaction to the Times story, in the hopes that the reaction would tell them what was going on.

When reporters boarded the plane after Bush's tour of a hospital they were greeted by Karen Hughes. "Cheese," she said offering a teetering plate of yellow and beige blocks. "Cheese, anyone?" The Bush campaign is a mostly irony- and humor-free zone. It remained so.