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Yeltsin also had problems with his regular TV coverage, even though he essentially controlled the state-run networks. As late as March, the news shows continued to criticize the President mercilessly, a favorite target being the war in Chechnya. "It was ludicrous to control the two major nationwide television stations and not have them bend to your will," says Dresner. In writing, the team adopted a more diplomatic tone. "Wherever an event is held," they wrote, "care should be taken to notify the state-run TV and radio stations to explain directly the event's significance and how we want it covered." Beginning in April, Russia's television became a virtual arm of the Yeltsin campaign, a crucial change that actually came fairly easily. With none of the more democratic candidates breaking through in the polls, most Russian journalists came to regard Yeltsin as the only effective bulwark against the Communists--and thus the best guarantor of their own careers.
What really caused surprise was the public's reaction to the biased reporting. "We focus-grouped the issue several times," says Shumate. The results were contained in a June 7 wrap-up memo on TV coverage. Only 28% of respondents said the media were very biased in Yeltsin's favor--a group that consisted mostly of Zyuganov's partisans. Twenty-nine percent said the media were "somewhat biased," but they broke in Yeltsin's favor. Amazingly, 27% said they thought the media were biased against Yeltsin.
Each day brought decisions on details that required careful thought and management. The Americans advised on staging crowds (and government employees were regularly instructed to attend Yeltsin's rallies). They conceived Russia's first-ever serious direct-mail effort (a letter from Yeltsin to Russian veterans thanking them for their service). They designed a campaign to use Yeltsin's wife Naina on the stump, where she was regularly well received. And they fought continuously all suggestions that Yeltsin debate Zyuganov. "He would have lost," Gorton says simply.
While the team dreaded the possibility of Yeltsin's being lured into debating Zyuganov, two greater threats loomed in early May. The Americans had been hoping to ignore Soskovets' instructions to signal a possible loss so that the elections could be canceled or delayed, but the issue was forced on May 5 when Yeltsin's closest aide, General Alexander Korzhakov, suggested a postponement.
Gorton had felt it coming and "for the first time ever," he says, "I wrote that an election was in the bag. No caveats, nothing about the trend looking good. I just flat out said you could take it to the bank. Actually, at that point, we had Yeltsin up by about 10 points. It certainly wasn't in the bag, but we didn't want the balloting disrupted. We might have fudged a bit if our numbers were close, but we didn't have to. Back then, we really thought we'd win comfortably."
Yeltsin scolded Korzhakov and said the election would be held on schedule. At the same time, he suggested that others besides Korzhakov believed a communist victory could provoke a civil war. That comment was widely interpreted as signaling that Yeltsin might indeed be planning to follow Korzhakov's advice later on. In fact, it was part of the strategy to make re-electing the President look like the best way for Russians to avoid chaos.