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CAMPAIGN 2000 | COLUMN ONE

For One Ad Man, a Leap of Faith

Media consultant Mark McKinnon says jumping ship to the Bush camp was more personal than political. But, as the parties lean toward the center, his move is indicative of shifting allegiances in the industry.

October 07, 2000|JEFF LEEDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AUSTIN, Texas — Mark McKinnon's old photos fit together like a mosaic of Democratic idealism. There's a shot of him hunched in a strategy session with Ann Richards, the acid-tongued former Texas governor, and legendary Democratic advertising consultant Bob Squier. And here he's mugging for the camera next to James Carville and Paul Begala, two architects of Bill Clinton's 1992 White House victory.

The images only suggest the chasm McKinnon crossed when he took his current job. He is the media consultant to Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush. That makes him a traitor in the eyes of one political party and a stranger in the eyes of another.

By the standards of the insular fraternity of presidential campaign consultants, McKinnon's jump is almost unheard of. The biggest names in the business still are die-hard loyalists to one party. Those who switch, including McKinnon, are viewed with suspicion by both sides.

Last month, when a videotape of Bush's debate preparation was mysteriously mailed to a supporter of Vice President Al Gore, McKinnon was an automatic suspect. Even now, the FBI investigation into the incident is focusing on McKinnon's office assistant, and Bush aides are subtly defining her as an employee of McKinnon's ad shop, not of the campaign itself.

But McKinnon's switch is the leading example of a growing trend in the political media industry.

As the parties have moved to the center, they have shrunk the philosophical leap required to switch sides. And increasingly, the line between political and commercial advertising has blurred. Campaign consultants often work for major corporations, while Madison Avenue ad firms regularly are tapped by presidential aspirants.

Carter Eskew, the media consultant for Gore, took heat recently when the press learned he offered his services last year to the same pharmaceutical companies the vice president now is blasting for their drug-pricing policies. Last spring, Bill Bradley's advertising during his campaign for the Democratic nomination was made by a group of New York media experts hired for their professional skills, not their political experience.

According to a survey conducted last year by American University, of 500 political consultants polled, 30% work for candidates from both major parties.

McKinnon, 45, is a former teen runaway and songwriter who spent more than a decade working for Democrats before he grew jaded by politics.

Now, four years after he dropped out of the campaign business, he is serving in a role that carries a lot of the GOP's highest hopes. But instead of being a cheerleader for his new party, McKinnon says that "party affiliation is becoming less and less important to voters."

"I think it is accurate to some degree to say the parties have both been moving to the center," he said. "I think that [Green Party nominee Ralph] Nader is right about that."

Personal Aspect Outweighed Politics

McKinnon and Bush met at a social dinner in 1997 organized by mutual friends. The consultant said he hit it off with the Texas governor, and, within a few months, he was working on Bush's reelection campaign. But he says the attraction was more personal than political.

McKinnon's shift is celebrated at Bush headquarters. For one thing, Bush strategists actually encourage him to talk about his switch--it's another part of marketing their candidate as a centrist.

Joining the Bush team was "a decision that I wrestled with for a good long time," McKinnon said. "I just came to realize that . . . what it's really about is . . . who has the sort of life experience and intelligence and depth and sensitivity to exercise good judgment when it comes to decisions about public policy."

Bill Miller, another Austin consultant who works for candidates from both parties, said, "It's real simple: At the end of the day you get hired by the person. . . . Mark's greatest gift is his ability to bond with the client. If you don't have that ability, then you're sunk."

McKinnon's switch is even more significant, given that he previously worked for Richards, who lost her 1994 reelection bid to Bush. McKinnon also served in the 1988 presidential campaign of Democrat Michael S. Dukakis when he ran against then-Vice President George Bush. In that race, the New York firm where McKinnon was a junior consultant, Sawyer Miller, devised a series of ads that portrayed a fictional group of consultants plotting to "package" Bush to make him more palatable to voters.

McKinnon's leap across the aisle to the GOP has prompted some former colleagues to call him a sellout.

"It's all about careerism and opportunism," said Brian Rodgers, who worked alongside McKinnon for former Texas Gov. Mark White, a Democrat. Upon learning of McKinnon's switch, Rodgers launched an anti-Bush Web site featuring the quotation: "Candidates without ideas hiring consultants without convictions to run campaigns without content."

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