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GOP CONVENTION '96

Convention Boss Gives GOP a Lift From the Wings

Staging: Paul Manafort Jr. is credited--and criticized--for keeping a tight rein on the proceedings. Some say he is getting praise that belongs to others.

August 16, 1996|JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Paul J. Manafort Jr.--a longtime Washington lawyer, lobbyist and campaign strategist--is the man credited by many with keeping Republicans on point and on time at a national convention that is generally agreed to be the most tightly managed ever.

Manafort's cool manner and exquisitely fitted suits mirror the careful tailoring that Republicans say has boosted presidential nominee Bob Dole's popularity. Journalists, however, complain that the same man has left them bereft of news and drama.

Some of Manafort's Republican colleagues, meanwhile, said he has accomplished one last piece of slick stagecraft--bagging credit for the success of a convention that had been planned for more than a year before he arrived on the scene.

Generally, though, the 47-year-old native of Alexandria, Va., has been basking in the glow of party unity and polling that shows President Clinton's lead over Dole shrinking.

"Paul Manafort has come up through the organization and this time he is the man," said James A. Baker III, secretary of state under President Bush and a leader of many GOP campaigns. "He has brought crispness and a demand to stay on message. Nobody is getting up there and speaking at 1 a.m. No way."

Manafort denied that he has hogged the praise for the GOP conclave since Dole chose him in March to run the San Diego operation. At his Thursday morning press briefing, Manafort made a point of thanking Republican National Committee organizers, led by convention manager William I. Greener III, for laying the groundwork for an open and inclusive gathering.

He also rejected complaints that his operation had leached the convention of issues and true political discourse, prompting ABC-TV newsman Ted Koppel to leave San Diego because of what he called a lack of real news.

"If the only thing that is news is controversy, then you are right, there is not a lot of news at this convention," Manafort said. "But news is also information. . . . The media may think they know Bob Dole, but most of the American people do not and that is what this event is all about."

Among the firsts claimed by Manafort and his fellow organizers was Elizabeth Hanford Dole's Wednesday night walk on the convention floor, where she used audience testimonials to illustrate her husband's warmth. What appeared as a casual stroll was in fact the product of days of planning, enforced by a regiment of sentries blocking a path for the peach-suited featured performer.

Sources said she requested a lapel microphone to enhance the "just moseyed by" ambience of her performance. Manafort agreed to that choice, although he had been warned that there was a 20% chance the device would fail in the cramped convention hall.

When the microphone crackled, roared and finally died, Mrs. Dole reached for one of three hand-held backup microphones that had been positioned around the hall. The glitch was barely noticed in a performance that even a top Democratic Party organizer said "succeeded many times over. . . . When you go live like that and try something new, it is really like walking a wire without a net."

Manafort mastered such political acrobatics during more than two decades in Washington. He has worked with every Republican president since Gerald R. Ford and helped manage three Republican conventions in the 1980s before missing the 1992 gathering.

Political operatives speculated at the time of that convention that Manafort had been exiled temporarily because of his involvement in an influence-peddling controversy. He acknowledged using his Washington connections to obtain a potentially lucrative federal housing contract.

Today, Manafort insists that he did nothing improper. And missing the 1992 convention might actually have been a boon to his career. That gathering fell under a pall of divisiveness that began with Patrick J. Buchanan's inflammatory opening-night speech.

In 1993, Manafort's ethics once again were called into question, this time in his capacity as a consultant in the international arena. The Indian government accused him of posing as a television journalist to gather information on behalf of an organization that India believed was friendly to rival Pakistan. Manafort denied that he had misrepresented himself but was criticized by journalists and government relations experts.

Since arriving in San Diego, Manafort has spent much of each 16-hour working day ensconced in a frigid, glass-walled sky box on the convention floor. There, seven television monitors track the fruits of his labor, while a small telescope is trained on the distant podium.

Seated in a black leather commander's chair during the convention's critical prime-time-TV hours, Manafort is almost never off the phone--as he decides to shed platform speakers and videos to keep key performers within an allotted two-hour window.

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