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California and the West

Advance Work--It's Not for Fainthearted

Politics: A good staffer anticipates and prevents every possible campaign disaster--then handles it when it happens anyway.

November 02, 1998|AMY PYLE and TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Such are the advance man's little nightmares: the candidate arriving, television cameras in tow, to find a crowd waving signs bearing his opponent's name; the chartered planes carrying candidate and press to an event landing in the wrong city; an elderly woman collapsing during the president's endorsement speech.

As cities and TV screens across California are visited by candidates puffing through their final campaign lap, proof proliferates that even the most diligent advance work cannot outsmart human nature.

An hour or more before the event, advancers arrive at the school or church or factory or hotel armed with their ammunition: stacks of campaign signs to affix and distribute, lists of names to check for proper pronunciation, rolls of silver duct tape to mark where officials should stand.

For incumbent U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, barely 5 feet tall, they bring the "Boxer box," a wooden platform for her to stand on. For gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren they bring paper towels to mop his oft-sweaty brow.

They radio back crucial information to the candidate's handlers: Come in through the back to avoid the protesters; don't have her introduce so-and-so--he didn't show up; there's a bathroom in the hallway should the candidate need to freshen up.

Best laid plans.

Then it was show time and there everyone was, standing in front of Bob Mills' typical middle-class San Francisco home to add veracity to a news conference about taxes.

And Leah Mills, age 2, was whining. Loudly.

She fussed through part of Boxer's speech, causing the candidate to turn and look. Mom took her inside, then brought her back. The toddler was, after all, an integral part of the family-of-four backdrop arranged for the cameras.

When her complaints resumed during former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley's speech, Leah was permanently removed to the house. But by then, the speakers and reporters were distracted. The message was sullied. The advance man looked like he'd rather be anywhere else.

Pulling off a campaign event is like staging a play with no dress rehearsal, or maybe more like improv in which you don't even know all the actors, or maybe just like life.

Perhaps that's why advancers tend to be the youngest of the campaign staff--full of energy and resilience and optimism.

It is thankless work, with candidates more likely to praise one of the staffers traveling with them--or one of the local officials greeting them--for some detail actually tailored by the advancer.

One advance man joked to a reporter: If you write about something that goes wrong, don't say I was here. If you mention something that goes well, get my name right.

If there were a manual for advancers, it would be divided into two main categories: "Outside Interference" and "Traitors in their Midst." A footnote might say: "Candidate Error: Can't blame you."

Outside interference.

Whether it comes in the form of whining children, protesters armed with a booming drum or an emergency helicopter taking off from a hospital roof across the street, unexpected noise can be the advancer's worst foe.

Some candidates rally better than others, even incorporating the interruption into their remarks.

At a cancer-awareness rally in Brentwood, an ambulance with siren wailing interrupted Boxer just as she hit a crescendo. She paused a second and said, "Imagine if that ambulance had three doctors aboard but when it got to the accident, the government said, 'Sorry only one doctor can help!' That's how it is when the government turns down two of every three science grants."

The crowd applauded wildly.

Other interruptions are too jarring to ignore, like when a diabetic campaign volunteer, Grace Jones, collapsed in the middle of Lungren's victory speech last Sunday in Elk Grove, a moment marked by Lungren's abrupt halt and shout: "Oh, my God! It's Grace!"

The Boxer camp faced a similar problem days later, when President Clinton spoke on her behalf at a Bel-Air fund-raiser. That time, an elderly woman fell to the ground.

The president kept talking as the woman, an oxygen mask covering her face, was carried out on a stretcher. "Don't worry, she's not famous," a White House press aide said soothingly.

Outside interference also plays a role when non-campaign staff are in the driver's seat. So learned gubernatorial candidate Gray Davis when, on a recent swing through the Central Valley, his two private jets landed in Modesto instead of 50 miles away at their destination, Atwater.

The pilot's explanation--that he didn't have the clearance required to land at Atwater's Castle Air Force Base--did not hold water: That base's 1991 closure was the genesis of the campaign event.

Traitors in their midst.

There's no telling when a perfectly orchestrated event might go awry simply because a supporter's purported support turns mushy.

That was Fong's plight the other day when he flew to Chico to talk about water. Michael Pucci, the 20-year-old director of the county Republican Party, was fuming. He had wanted to bring out local Fong supporters and the campaign had told him no.

"This is no way to run a campaign," Pucci, now irritated, told reporters. "And quite frankly, Matt's weak on a lot of issues."

Then, there was Ken DeVoe, mayor of Atwater, who came to welcome Boxer to his town and thank her for securing financial assistance when their Air Force base closed. A Republican, he told reporters he nonetheless admired the senator. But would he vote for her?

"I don't commit myself until I go into the booth," DeVoe said.

*

Times staff writer Virginia Ellis contributed to this story.

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