What if the McCain campaign had run ads using footage of Barack Obama dancing with Ellen DeGeneres to show his coziness with celebrity? Or followed up on its Paris Hilton ad with others featuring Donald Trump and Jessica Simpson? All of that was on the drawing board of Fred Davis III, the advertising whiz that John McCain has used for almost all of his campaign media and one of the most talented conservative political operatives in America. Oh yes, he also had an Internet ad up his sleeve that would attack Obama's celebrity by associating him with Oprah. But in the end, he scotched that one. "We decided you don't really fight Santa Claus or Oprah," he says, "so we removed her."
In an extended interview with TIME, Davis detailed what might have been in the campaign ad war and what self-censorship the McCain staff imposed on themselves regarding the issue of race. For most of the campaign, Davis functioned as McCain's silent partner. While journalists hounded McCain's senior campaign aides, people like Steve Schmidt, Mark Salter and Rick Davis (no relation), Fred Davis worked in the shadows. He designed and often wrote the scripts for the most stinging of McCain's spots the Web ad that depicted Obama as a messiah, the kindergarten ad that suggested Obama wanted to teach young kids about sex and the many others that questioned Obama's qualifications for the White House. (See the best Obama pictures from the campaign.)
"My favorite ad of the campaign was as simple as it could be," Davis said. "And it started out something like, 'Long before the world knew of John McCain or Barack Obama, one of them spent five years in a hellhole because he refused early release to honor his fellow prisoners, while the other one wouldn't walk out of a church after 20 years of the guy spewing hatred towards America.' And the last line was, 'Character matters, especially when no one is listening.' " The ad never ran, however, because McCain ruled the topic of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the preacher of Obama's Chicago church, out of bounds shortly after he locked up the Republican nomination.
Good advertising men are almost always mischiefmakers at heart, the sort who don't mind a little confrontation and who revel in a bit of controversy. And so Davis is wistful at the missed opportunities of the McCain campaign. "I made a list once, which no one will ever see, of all the reasons that my hands were tied on this campaign," he says. "And I've never had a list this long." One of his biggest struggles, Davis says, was to come up with negative spots against a historic, groundbreaking candidate without stepping on taboos. "One of the big hands that I felt was tied behind my back was [that] so many things like [Obama's record on] crime you would logically do were perceived as 'Oh, we can't do that. That was playing the race card,' " he says, adding that the campaign created a whole series of crime attacks against Obama that were never aired. "Reverend Wright? 'Oh, can't do that; they'll say we are playing the race card.' [William] Ayers? For the longest time, 'Oh, can't do that. We're playing the race card.' "
Davis says that concern about race played a major role in the entire aesthetic of McCain's ads. The photographs of Obama that the ads used, for instance, which often showed Obama elongated and smiling, were carefully selected, he recalls. "We chose them with only one thing in mind, and that is to not make them bad pictures because bad pictures would be seen as racist," Davis says. "How many shots in their ads did they use a John McCain [photo] looking decent and smiling?" He says the campaign also agonized over the music in the ads, paying special care not to play drum-heavy tracks that could be seen as an African tribal reference. "We were held to a totally different standard," he says.
Nevertheless, the McCain campaign was unable to escape the charge that it was playing the race card. An Associated Press analysis called the campaign's invocations of the once violent 1960s radical Ayers "racially tinged" because they evoked the word terrorist. McCain was also accused of playing on race for running an ad that highlighted Obama's relationship with Franklin Raines, a former executive at Fannie Mae who is black. Says Davis: "I never saw anybody play the race card but the Obama campaign."
Still, for Davis, it was an exhilarating if frustrating experience. In addition to the McCain account, his firm oversaw ads for five Senate races, including the hard-fought Elizabeth Dole and John Sununu campaigns. It was a career high point for Davis, who started in advertising at the age of 19, after his father died and he had to take over the family public relations business. At the height of the campaign, Davis, who is the nephew of Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, oversaw nine edit shops, producing up to three spots a day, as well as the stage production for the Republican National Convention. "You wouldn't know what tomorrow's need was until tomorrow morning early," he says. "And it needed to be out that day."
By all rights, Fred Davis III should be living in a red state, a place teeming with clapboard churches, cowboy hats and gun racks. Instead, the Oklahoma native has chosen to live in sunny Santa Barbara, Calif., and has located his company, Strategic Perception, in sinful Hollywood. But he's had to pay a price for it all. The neighbors haven't exactly been friendly. Every day for about six months, he put a "John McCain for President" sign in front of his home. And almost every night it would be stolen. "I wanted to leave a note there and say, 'You idiots don't get it. I have an unlimited supply,' " Davis says, still laughing about it.
After the election ended, he participated in a panel discussion before a crowd of Hollywood bigwigs. He was met with disapproving grumbles when he was introduced as the guy who made McCain's Paris Hilton ad. "It wasn't a good evening really," Davis says. As he was trying to leave the hall, former Seinfeld actor Jason Alexander confronted him. "He basically wanted to know how I sleep at night."
Even with the limitations on his ads, Davis says he holds no ill feelings toward Obama. He says the McCain campaign's plan, which was largely dependent on tactical attacks on Obama, was working well until the financial meltdown, which began to accelerate in mid-September. "You've got to look at it and say, my Lord, it was just Obama's time. You know, his stars aligned right," Davis says. "And I think he's an incredibly gifted candidate. Let's hope, and I do hope, and I hope I'm right, that he'll be a very gifted President. And I hope he'll rule from the middle. And I hope he'll, you know, be inclusive of Republicans. And if he does those things, he could be one of the great Presidents in history."
Such kind words for Obama may be surprising coming from the man who oversaw the media campaign to destroy Obama's reputation. But Davis is not the kind of Republican operative who looks on liberals with personal animus. At the end of the day, he still has to live among them.