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Dole did not campaign effectively on the character issue until the last weeks before the election, when he got an assist from the media: press reports revealed that a Clinton fund raiser named John Huang had collected more than $800,000 in questionable contributions from foreign donors. Clinton had designed his fund-raising juggernaut to ensure a big win, but now public disgust with his money machine threatened to whittle down the size of his victory margin. Clinton desperately wanted to get more than 50% of the vote. As some undecided voters broke for Ross Perot, Clinton's own polls showed him hovering just below the magic number. To make matters worse, the White House was caught off guard by the Huang story. No one plotted a rapid response. No one was deputized to handle the flood of press inquiries.
In late October, Penn saw a poll finding that people thought Clinton had taken more money from foreign sources than had Dole. It wasn't true, and it represented a possible opening for Dole. Penn preached aggressive counterprogramming. He began mall-testing a devastating anti-Clinton spot made by Knapp showing a smiling Clinton among Indonesian fat cats. The tag line was, "The President says he did nothing wrong. But isn't the test of a President doing what's right?" This time, they did not make the mistake of showing it to the boss.
On Sunday, Oct. 20, Knapp and Penn cobbled together a response. The spot they made accused Dole of taking $2.6 million in foreign money and being an obstacle to reform. Early Monday morning, Clinton told Penn he wanted to respond on the stump to Dole's attacks. Penn discouraged him. "Anything we say becomes the day's lead story," he said. Penn told him about the new spot, and they decided to put it up immediately. To further blunt Dole's attack, the White House readied some Clinton remarks on campaign-finance reform. He would come out in favor of the McCain-Feingold reform bill, which he had done nothing to support during the previous session and which Dole helped kill. The late response didn't make the problem go away, but it seemed to do the job. Clinton's fund-raising tactics might end up hobbling his second term, but they wouldn't stop him from winning it.
No issue was beneath Penn's radar. One day in October, the President was going over some TV interview questions with Penn, Baer and policy adviser Gene Sperling. Nickelodeon had a simple question: What's the President's favorite fast food?
"You can't answer that!" cried Penn.
Baer agreed, and the two men made a heated case. Fast food was part of Clinton's bad old image: the burger-munching, sax-playing juvenile-in-chief. That Clinton had gradually given way to a grayer and graver President, with an optimism that seemed more deeply felt. Penn and Baer were aghast that Clinton might take a step backward. Sperling thought this message business was getting just a bit out of hand.
"Just out of curiosity, Mr. President," he said, "what is your favorite fast food?"
Clinton thought for a moment. He couldn't narrow it down. "Burritos, deep-dish pizza, chicken sandwiches," he said finally.
"No! You can't say that!" Penn howled.
"Why can't he say that?" Sperling wanted to know.
"Yeah, why can't I say that?" Clinton demanded. And then he overruled his pollster: "I'm going to say it."