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Presidential elections have most often turned on the great issues of the day: war and cold war, liberalism and conservatism, economic good times and bad. But in the post-ideological, slow-growth era of 1996 America, the election was won and lost on the Message--the ability to divine the hopes, fears and desires of voters, then craft the ideas, words and images that would best reach them. Bill Clinton built the most sensitive radar apparatus American politics has ever seen; Bob Dole looked at the same public mood but failed to read its meaning. This is the inside story of the Dole and Clinton message teams: the pollsters, strategists and admakers who made and sold their messages not only to the public but to the candidates.


May 1995. A humid weekday afternoon in Washington. Seven men were sitting in the spare, modern living room of Bob Squier's Capitol Hill town house making tense small talk, eating deli sandwiches, sipping diet sodas and herbal tea. Although the debonair media consultant was the nominal host, the meeting had been called by Dick Morris, Bill Clinton's stealth strategist. Morris had been secretly advising the President for six months and had emerged from the shadows only in April. Now Clinton had asked him to assemble the campaign's creative team. But despite Clinton's endorsement, Morris' position inside the White House remained precarious. Many of the President's top aides (especially deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes, who was running the campaign) were gunning for Morris and trying to block his every move. Morris had convened the meeting in a private home, not an office; he didn't want anything to leak.

In his blunt, breathless way, Morris went around the room describing the assets of each member of the team. He called Doug Schoen, the intense and bespectacled pollster, a superb numbers man and a loyal friend. Hank Sheinkopf, a straight-talking New York consultant, was a "raw talent" who excelled at making emotional attack ads. Marius Penczner, a video producer from Nashville, Tennessee, was a terrific shooter but didn't know much about politics. Bill Knapp, Squier's lanky partner, was a top-notch writer and manager, while Tom Ochs, the firm's third partner, was a tough political operative. And Morris said of Squier, "Bob and I have had our ups and downs."

In fact, they loathed each other. They had tangled in 1986, while working opposite sides of a Florida Senate race. Squier had accused Morris of inflating his client's polling numbers, calling Morris "the Julia Child of cooked polls." Morris had been nursing a grudge ever since. Now, by way of apology, Squier said, "At least I didn't call you Chef Boyardee." But Morris didn't have to like Squier to appreciate his value. Morris and most of the others were renegade New Yorkers with few Washington ties; Squier, a consummate insider and confidant of Al Gore's, would be their consigliere. "This is the team I will present to the President," Morris told them. Squier shifted in his chair. "We could get killed in a coup at any time," Squier declared. "It's risky, but what choice do we have?"

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