The Independent Archive: A need to give stature to the candidate

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The Independent Culture
9 September 1988

Peter Mandelson, director of campaigns and communications for the Labour Party, follows Michael Dukakis on the US campaign trail

I FLY from Washington to join Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis in his home state. There is a feeling his campaign has faltered. The New York Times asks acidly why Dukakis is spending time wandering around western Massachusetts looking like a man running for governor again. I quickly realise I am with Dukakis at a difficult time. But strain doesn't show and he is welcoming. In a day he makes six visits, four speeches, holds one press conference and broadcasts by satellite.

I AM witnessing the battle of the soundbites. The aim is to achieve better visuals and a sharper message than your opponent on the evening network news. The criticism of Dukakis is that, since George Bush came out fighting after the Quayle fiasco, he has been losing the media war. But Dukakis is good at the counterpunch. After delivering his favourite speech on economic patriotism and bringing prosperity home to the average American, he walks into a press conference and, in a 70-second statement, accuses Bush of full complicity in the Iran-Contra scandal. The networks are pleased. "Dukakis today showed his strength . . . Dukakis has signified a new campaign turn." How true this is emerges by the end of the week.

SO, WHO is the Duke? Being with him you have a strong sense of a man who is comfortable with himself, his record and his ability to achieve his chosen goals. He does not have the Kennedy charisma or the Johnson cunning. But he is definitely more earthed than the enigmatic Carter. He is not easy to read on the values cluster so beloved of political analysts here. He will proudly appear before the American flag, but he refuses to wrap himself in it. He supports America's nuclear strength, but will not buy every new weapons system the Pentagon fancies. He is happy for schoolchildren to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, but he'll stand up for their right not to do so. Above all, he believes in government giving a lead. That's why he would make a good manager president if elected to follow the actor president.

AS DUKAKIS flies on to California I go to the campaign's Boston headquarters. The 10 floors are jam-packed with staff, telephones, word-processors and fax machines: it is not one campaign but 50. Every state, albeit some more important than others, has its own field operation, its own media market; its own fund-raising programme and political complexion to be accommodated. Jack Corrigan pulls together the operation for Dukakis, who is determined the campaign will differ in every sense from Mondale's in 1984. Then the Democrats were under-funded, poorly organised and left standing on the runway. But many staff I spoke to still felt the campaign was lacking something: the name never far from their lips was that of John Sasso.

Sasso was Dukakis's hardball-playing campaign strategist who in 1987 had to resign after exposing opponent Senator Joe Biden's use of Neil Kinnock's election oratory in his speeches. I was meeting with the Dukakis advertising team when the news broke: Sasso was coming back. The relief was audible. At a packed press conference Sasso apologised for hurting Biden and he charmed the journalists. I was approached for a comment by reporters whom I'd met earlier and said: "Joe Biden's made it up with Neil Kinnock so there's no reason why John Sasso shouldn't make it up with the campaign."

But Sasso not only needs to bring additional skills to the visuals war. He needs to give stature to the candidate. The Dukakis slogan of "Good jobs at good wages" is fine for an ordinary politician but people want to read more than that in the next leader of the world's most powerful nation.

From `My Week' in `The Independent', Friday