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meet a very laid-back political maniac

Can a baby boomer media strategist from Southern California work his magic for a 73-year-old, lifelong political animal from Kansas? No problem for Don Sipple. Which way to the jugular?

August 11, 1996|Dave Lesher | Dave Lesher covers the governor's office from The Times' Sacramento bureau

"I have absolute confidence in the victory that to some may seem unattainable." There are 18 television screens set into the studio wall, and Bob Dole is speaking simultaneously on three of them. His image freezes.

"O-two-eighteen-seven," orders Don Sipple. A young technician squeals the videotape in search of the coordinates. It stops with a clunk and Dole resumes: "To concentrate on the campaign--giving all, risking all--I must leave the Congress that I love."

Stop.

The camera shot of Dole's resignation speech last May is tight. His familiar look of sober authority is framed by the knot of a red Republican tie and two shaggy brows. The only crack of emotion is in those glassy brown eyes.

That's what Sipple is after. Look a person in the eye, he says, and they will believe you are telling the truth. George W. Bush--now governor of Texas, thanks partly to Sipple--had that look. "Piercing blue eyes," Sipple calls them. "When I did him, I came in tight on those eyes. They grabbed you." Now, Sipple comes in tight on Dole's eyes. The senator is struggling to control his face. But his eyes betray feeling.

In political television, as Marshall McLuhan wrote, issues are too hot. Images are cool. This rent-a-studio about three blocks from the White House is where image makers like Sipple chill the temperatures McLuhan warned about. Obstinacy in Congress becomes confidence in a campaign. A long political career means experience. A short one says new ideas. Pass a tax increase and you're a deficit hawk. Pitch a tax cut and you're a champion of the people.

Sipple also is cool. For a day of studio editing he is dressed sort of Banana Republican--a stone-washed red shirt with pleated khaki trousers. No socks. Just white suede Topsiders. Typically, Sipple is not being very Washington. Nothing here says power in a town where people advertise all they've got. Instead, Sipple lives up to his reputation--and his upbringing--as a laid-back California surfer. Feet are propped up on a control panel next to coffee cups and ashtrays. A clipboard is in his left hand. And as he concentrates on how he will pitch Dole to America, his right hand squeezes a baseball, mindlessly forming a repertoire of big-league grips.

Unfortunately, there is just one thing wrong with the image of Dole now flickering on the wall. And it can't be fixed. Not even here. Sticking out from behind Dole's head like a silver eclipse is one of America's most recognizable haircuts. It's House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Sipple remembers screaming to himself "No! No!" when Gingrich and a flock of good-old-boy Washington politicians huddled around Dole's farewell like he was a mother duck. Now the video image doesn't quite fit the event's carefully scripted punch line: "Just a man."

"Can you change the background?" asked Fred Steeper, Dole's pollster. He seems more curious than serious. Sipple and his assistants casually discuss the technical work involved. "It would be too obvious though," Steeper offered.

Sipple paused. "Oh, yeeeeah."

*

From here, it is almost possible to imagine that it's all one big video game. Push the right buttons and you can elect a president. Or a governor. Or a senator. Sipple has pushed the right buttons here many times. Since starting in 1980, he has won a remarkable 19 statewide races with just one loss. Even he is getting superstitious about his streak. The last few cycles, he's started to think that maybe he'd better imitate the same routine each Election Day.

But if this really was a game, Sipple would already be in the bonus round. Since last February, after a staff shake-up at the low point of Dole's primary tailspin, Sipple has been the chief media strategist for the Republican presidential campaign.

The job puts Sipple at the top level of Dole's strategy team, along with campaign manager Scott Reed and political director Jill Hanson. But instead of crunching dollars, schedules and speeches, Sipple's primary task is to think in pictures. This summer, he announced the creation of New Century Media Inc., with which he will direct a core of political and corporate advertising specialists in making Dole's commercials. Their effort is expected to consume about two-thirds of the Republican campaign budget--about $40 million in barely three months. That means most of America will see Sipple's work this fall.

"I consider him to be the best of his generation of consultants," says Doug Bailey, a former media strategist now publishing a popular national political newsletter, The Hotline. Bailey might be biased. He gave Sipple, then 29, his first job in the business. Now Sipple considers him the mentor most responsible for shaping his career. But Sipple is ranked near the top of almost anybody's list of Republican media strategists. At 45, he is the GOP's first baby boomer successor to the early Republican image makers like Roger Ailes and Michael Deaver, who changed forever the way America elects its presidents.

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