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Campaign 2000: Behind the Scenes

For a Campaign in Motion, the Idea Is 'Have Chaos, Will Travel'

When presidential candidates hit the road, they take along a small army that can cost $200,000 a day. And that doesn't include the Fed Ex bills so that equipment left behind in the rush can catch up with the entourage.


Take the chaos of a circus, the conversation of C-SPAN and the silliness of World Wide Wrestling. Throw in a ringmaster who enjoys discussing things like the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, a particularly unruly herd of reporters and lots of lost luggage.

This, pretty much, is the world of presidential campaign travel.

A typical day involves moving more than 100 people, including the candidate, his staff, dozens of reporters and security through stops in as many as six states per day.

"The whole thing has always amazed me," said Curtis Wilkie, a Boston Globe reporter who has weathered eight presidential campaigns since George McGovern ran in 1972.

But for all its complexity, the punishing demands of campaign travel are probably lost on voters. Working behind the scenes, the campaigns create virtual traveling towns, setting up hotel rooms, banquet halls, lighting, food, telephone lines and plane flights--every day, seven days a week, in the heat of a hard-fought campaign.

The Frantic Pace Guarantees Snafus

The costs add up fast. Renting a Boeing 727 to fly around the country goes for about $8,000 an hour. Setting up the lights at an event to make the candidate look good on television can cost as much as $25,000.

When a campaign is in full swing, in fact, it's not unheard of to spend more than $200,000 per day, with the media reimbursing the campaign for a good chunk of those costs, such as transportation and lodging.

The fast pace guarantees mistakes and snafus. A campaign leaves a trail of lost items across America--cellular phones, jackets, laptop computers, all get left behind in the hustle-bustle, to be recovered only through the miracle of Fed Ex.

The reason behind the incessant travel, of course, is to get the free exposure that comes with a news story--what political insiders call "earned media."

"What's a photo on the front page of the L.A. Times worth? What's the front page of the New York Times? Everything I do is for earned media," said Lanny Wiles, one of the select group that exacts a living from sorting out the chaotic logistics of a campaign. Wiles served as an advance man for President Reagan and, most recently, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

But another big goal of advance work is to energize the crowd, which, in turn, energizes the candidate and the campaign.

"You want to bring out the emotion in people and make it an experience," said Brian Montgomery, George W. Bush's advance director. "We want to make it worth their time."

A Reporter's Query: 'What State Are We In?'

A typical day begins with the dreaded Bag Call--the time each morning, often before dawn, when bleary-eyed press, staffers and security gather in a hotel lobby with their luggage to begin another 12-hour campaign day.

It's not a happy time. Coffee intake is high, grumpiness universal. Instead of the usual chatter, there is silence.

Next, everybody piles onto buses or planes and follows the candidate from stop to stop. A VFW hall in Ohio. A drafty airport hangar in Michigan. A photo opportunity in an elementary school in Pennsylvania. Sometimes all before dinner.

The spots are usually carefully chosen weeks in advance. Al Gore flies to Detroit to announce a new program to improve fuel economy. Or Bush tours a health clinic in a poor St. Louis neighborhood to unveil a plan to build 3,000 such clinics.

It's no coincidence that both sites are in crucial swing states.

"We try to mesh the message, the venue and the theme," Montgomery said.

As campaigns move at warp speed, cities tend to lose distinction. It's common for a reporter to look up suddenly from a keyboard and demand: "What state are we in?"

Candidates, of course, can never make that mistake. In each town, they usually have a line in their speeches to acknowledge the locale. Bush will frequently say how glad he is to be in Cleveland. Or Red Oak. Or Charleston.

Take a recent day on the Bush campaign.

The hyper-energetic candidate had eight separate meetings on a schedule that began at 7:50 a.m. in New Jersey and ended 12 hours and 1,267 miles later in Wisconsin.

The day included a tour of a charter school, a youth rally at an airport and several private receptions. One thing the day didn't include was much news. Although local papers did note Bush's appearances, many larger news outlets, the Los Angeles Times among them, didn't even report on the day's activities.

The main reason is the stump speech. A candidate running for office always--always, always, always--gives the same speech at every appearance, every day. On the day in question, Bush delivered one speech over and over, doing nothing "new," but guaranteeing some coverage of his presence with local television stations and newspapers.

The Stump Speech Again, and Again . . .

It's called staying on message, or message discipline in the parlance of the trade. The idea is to make sure that each crowd that shows up hears the same thing and leaves with the same idea.

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