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Along with Schoen's partner, Mark Penn, these men would help Clinton resuscitate his lifeless presidency--engineering the re-election of a man who looked for all the world like a one-term wonder, a political afterthought. The Republican midterm landslide a few months before had depressed the President, and for good reason. White House polling showed that voters gave him especially low marks for "effectiveness" and "decisiveness"--two hallmarks of presidential leadership. Clinton's approval rating was in the 40s; he trailed Dole in the presidential horse race by 15 percentage points. Voters associated Clinton with three principal issues: gays in the military, the 1993 tax increase and the health-care debacle. In focus groups, says one of the President's consultants, "people didn't want to see his face or hear his voice."
To succeed in 1996, Clinton and his consultants would have to win two campaigns: the first against the President's own unpopular and liberal image, the second against his eventual opponent, Bob Dole. Only by achieving victory in the first war would they acquire the weapons to fight the second. In the end, they assembled a big-spending war machine fueled by "soft-money" donations to the Democratic National Committee and founded on a rocklike faith in opinion polls. The surveys were used not just to gauge voter attitudes but also to shape Clinton's arguments, test and refine his television commercials and recast his public image. Because swing voters liked outdoorsy vacations, for example, the First Family would take their summer break in Wyoming.
Clinton knew the campaign would be won or lost before the summer of 1996; Dole assumed that it began on Labor Day. While Clinton poll-tested every family-friendly policy, every nuance of strategy, Dole never had a strategy to test.
ONE SMALL, UNHAPPY FAMILY
Dole did not so much assemble a team as begin a desultory conversation with those already around him. The Dole clan was like a dysfunctional family, a cool, taciturn group whose members spoke in shorthand and didn't probe one another's ideas or motivations. There was longtime confidant Mari Maseng Will, a tall, genteel woman who had a real feel for what voters cared about. There was Bill Lacy, a buttoned-down Marylander and trusted Dole aide who would run strategy and message. There was a veteran G.O.P. fieldman named Tom Synhorst, who had managed Dole's winning 1988 Iowa campaign. And there was fund raiser JoAnne Coe, who started with Dole in 1967.
They cared deeply about Dole but were not at all sure if Dole was serious about making the race. They believed in letting Dole be Dole. The Senator himself had been convinced just two years earlier that he was too old to run again. But with Clinton looking vulnerable, Republicans riding high and an underwhelming field of rivals, Dole thought, Well, why not?
Dole dithered for months over his decision. Not even Elizabeth Dole knew what her husband was thinking; she only knew that he was. When he finally decided to run, he didn't bother to tell his group of advisers; instead, he tossed off the news in an aside to the Associated Press. Coe learned that her longtime boss was running for President from the newspapers.