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CAMPAIGN 2000: ON THE RAZOR'S EDGE

'War Rooms' Are Center of Stormy Season

Campaign: Their private lives all but forgotten, youthful party faithful run on adrenaline as they staff their candidates' offices.

November 05, 2000|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NASHVILLE — Out along Mainstream Drive, a couple of turns from the huge inflated tent that the Tennessee Titans use for rainy day football practice, another sort of team toils in a different sort of bubble.

Sealed inside an innocuous office building, Al Gore's campaign staff is awhirl. Kenneth Baer hammers out another speech. Mike Smith marshals the battle for the Midwest. Kym Spell offers reporters snappy telephone retorts.

Two states away, deep in downtown Austin, Texas, the buttoned-down campaign headquarters of George W. Bush buzzes in the belly of a marble high-rise a few blocks from the statehouse's pink-granite dome.

Brent Greenfield scans a dozen TVs in the "war room." Ken Mehlman plots direct-mail, final-minute phoning. And off in a cubicle, foreign policy advisor Joel Shin--computer keyboard on his lap--succumbs to his routine of 22-hour workdays. His eyes close, his head rolls back, the snoring begins.

Zzzzzzznnnn-gug-gug-gug . . .

Hello from the home office.

In this stormy political season, Austin and Nashville are the vortexes of twin typhoons that have swirled for months across the land. Now, as America prepares to select a president, the gale has only intensified.

The cadre of disarmingly youthful Republicans and Democrats that forms the nucleus of the dueling camps runs these days on caffeine and adrenaline.

Dinner is all too often Pizza Hut or Taco Bell or the office vending machine. Haircuts are put off. Once-a-week golf or tennis habits abandoned.

Bush staffer Dan Bartlett keeps a pitching wedge in his office, a totem to the life he left behind: "I pick it up, hold it and wish."

A pleasant diversion is a football tossed around to break the tension. Or a litter of abandoned puppies that was cuddled and adopted out at Gore HQ one recent day. Or perhaps a quick jaunt outside for a smoke and the discovery that, yes, there still is a sky out there.

If These Walls Could Talk

The office space they occupy is as different as the candidates.

Bush's headquarters is upscale, snug among the corporate suites in a glistening skyscraper. The reception area is dark wood panels, glass-topped tables and gold lamps. Behind locked doors, the office snakes for 42,000 square feet around two floors of cubicles. Campaign placards cover the walls, trail souvenirs ring desks.

Gore's place, by contrast, is like some county Democratic headquarters all grown up. Sprawling over an acre of single-story floor space, it is dominated by a huge, open room housing the bulk of the 250-person staff. Desks are crammed together in pods. Privacy is nonexistent. "The pit," they call it.

Walled off on one edge is "the cage," where the Democratic presidential candidate's research and policy wonks reside. Along another wall is the campaign's war room, dubbed "the kitchen." It was a lunchroom in a previous lifetime.

Sealed inside their rival HQs, the troops' rhythm is dictated by the pulse of the campaign. They deal with logistical hiccups at candidate stops in distant states, shape strategy and answer up to 800 media calls a day.

These are victims of the 24-hour news cycle.

In Nashville, Stu Loeser keeps a sleeping bag and foam pad beside his desk so his eight-person staff can catch a nap between shifts monitoring a bank of TV screens around the clock.

"I'm often up 30 hours straight. During the convention, it was 38 hours straight," says Loeser, a tassel-haired New York state native who has become a sort of cult hero to his peers.

Loeser produces the daily 100-page synopses of campaign news, along with a droll comic take on the media during morning meetings. The running joke is that Loeser's stand-up is the only reason Tad Devine, a top Gore strategist, bothers to show up at the 8:15 a.m. session.

At the Bush HQ, staffers say the pace never seems to let up.

"I've poured concrete on high-rises, done construction," said Robert Woodson, who puts in 16-hour days to help shape the GOP candidate's policy message. "But this is by far the hardest work I've ever done."

The place pulsed Thursday when news broke of Bush's 1976 drunken-driving arrest. But the campaign team, insiders say, took the stoic path. Strategists met. The message was shaped. Surrogates were primed to mount a defense. Out on the road, the Texas governor held his press conference.

Then the headquarters staff scrambled onward into the campaign's final 100 hours.

So Different, Yet So Alike

Ideological differences aside, the rival camps share some startling similarities.

Both are young. Nearly all but the top advisors are working on their first presidential campaign. The median age for Bush's campaign staff is 30. For the Gore team it is 28. Tricia Enright, a 33-year-old deputy communications director for Gore, admits feeling like "a den mother."

With that youth comes a certain shared zeal, a manic intensity and devotion to the candidates rarely found in more seasoned politicos.

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