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Campaign '96 / BEHIND THE SCENES : Dole Press Spokesman Quotable but Invisible : Nelson Warfield would rather let his political witticisms, not himself, get the attention.

The Players: A periodic look at the behind-the-scenes aides, consultants, media members and others shaping the course of the 1996 presidential campaign.

March 13, 1996|SAM FULWOOD III | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Nelson Warfield, the chief press spokesman for Bob Dole's presidential campaign, dwells in the shadows.

He was on the edge of the stage in a New Hampshire hotel ballroom when Dole conceded to rival Patrick J. Buchanan in the first primary of this election year.

Last week, as Dole beamed during a party in Washington and basked in the triumph of winning all eight "Junior Tuesday" primaries, Warfield again could be found on the sidelines.

Whether his boss is suffering through a dispiriting defeat or exulting over a clean sweep, Warfield has remained "kind of invisible," as one observer puts it.

"In a way, it's a unique thing because most [press secretaries] want you to know as much about themselves as their bosses," said Deborah Orin, the Washington bureau chief for the New York Post. "I've watched Warfield for a while and I think he's the ultimate professional. But I can't tell you anything much about him personally."

Even key Dole campaign advisors, such as GOP consultant Jay Smith, profess to be in the dark about Warfield. "I don't know him," Smith said. "All I can tell you is the obvious, you know, that he's the campaign spokesman."

And that he gives good quotes.

Among the tight-lipped operatives within the Dole camp, Warfield stands virtually alone in his ability to produce on demand pithy sound bites. At times he even rivals Dole, a master of dark campaign humor.

In a brief interview, the 6-foot-5, heavyset Warfield said his pointed wit has been a blessing and a curse in his political life.

"Humor is one of the most powerful weapons you can use against an opponent in politics," he said. "If you get people, the public, laughing at your opponent, then you have damaged him. Sometimes, if they laugh long and hard enough, [the opponent] can't recover and you will have killed him."

On occasion, even the wounded return as allies. For example, several of Warfield's sharpest barbs were directed at Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, who once was viewed as Dole's chief rival in the GOP race but who now campaigns for the Senate leader.

Warfield, 36, rarely passed up a chance to zing Gramm. For instance, when the Texan frequently missed Senate sessions to campaign while Dole was tied up with legislative business, Warfield remarked that Gramm "has proved himself to be a nonessential federal worker during the budget battle."

Another time, Warfield cracked that "Gramm's problem remains that he has more of a squint than a vision."

And after Gramm's surprising defeat to Buchanan in the Feb. 6 Louisiana caucuses, Warfield came up with the quote of the day. Gramm, he told reporters, had been "boiled and peeled like a crawfish."

But Warfield is an equal opportunity quipster. To wit:

* On publishing magnate Steve Forbes' use of saturation television ads: "They're selling Forbes like a Ginsu knife."

* On all of Dole's GOP rivals, as they combined attacks on him: "A bunch of kids playing under the dining room table while the adults dealt with serious matters."

* On the announcement that two of President's Clinton's longtime Arkansas supporters--the head of Tyson Foods and a top Little Rock banker--would support Dole this year: "It looks like friends don't let friends reelect Bill Clinton."

Yet despite his verbal flair, Warfield is careful to keep his role subordinate to Dole's--even to the point of fending off basic inquiries about himself. "Why me?" he asked when first approached for this story.

"I enjoy doing what I do," he said later with great reluctance. "I'm happy to make a living doing things that used to get you in trouble in high school."

Like the candidate himself, Warfield's stock within the Dole operation seems on the ascent after a bumpy period. In the wake of the New Hampshire loss, the campaign rumor mill tabbed Warfield as one of those being blamed for Dole's slow takeoff. At least one published account, citing unnamed campaign sources, predicted he would be dropped as part of a shake-up.

The changes came and went. Warfield remains on the job, riding the campaign plane as he whispers in Dole's ear and phoning back dispatches to campaign headquarters in Washington.

"There are two factions pulling on Dole to say things and do things that affect his campaigning style," said a political operative who worked for Dole's 1988 presidential run and remains well connected to this year's staff. "Nelson Warfield is on the winning side and he's got Mari Maseng Will on his side with him."

Will is the Dole campaign's communications director and Warfield's immediate supervisor. She is also Warfield's political mentor.

"He's one of the brightest, capable, most loyal people I've ever known," said Will, who was also the subject of departure rumors.

She added that Warfield is "very popular with the people who count"--Dole and campaign manager Scott Reed.

Will has known Warfield since she hired him as the first of her four deputies after President Ronald Reagan picked her in the spring of 1988 to reorganize his White House communications office.

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