Inside Story: The people who sell presidents

Behind every 'Super Tuesday' there's a hidden PR bunfight to sell the US presidential candidates' strengths and conceal their frailties. Stephen Foley unveils the spinmeisters

MIKE HUCKABEE

It was by courting a string of influential columnists that the little-known former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee first got into contention in the Republican race. The average political beat reporter had written off his presidential bid even before they had written about it, but columnists including The Washington Post's widely-syndicated E J Dionne picked him out ("a southerner with unassailable Christian evangelical credentials" and therefore "the Republican to watch", Mr Dionne wrote a year ago). David Broder, another senior Washington Post columnist and TV pundit, was also charmed into praising him in print.

And so the momentum was built, with Kirsten Fedewa, a long-time press adviser from Huckabee's days with the Republican governors' association, at his side, and Alice Stewart, a glamorous Arkansas TV anchor, adding to this underfunded media operation. Fedewa kept up the outreach to journalists, luring them with promises of easy access to her candidate, hunting for free coverage because there was no money for ads. For a brief moment, the Huckabee operation threatened to be overwhelmed – now it is back to begging for coverage.

RON PAUL

Hillary Clinton: 37,400. Barack Obama: 30,400. John McCain: 5,100. Ron Paul: 111,000. If convention delegates reflected YouTube clips, then the 72-year-old Congressman for Lake Jackson, Texas would be on the verge of becoming 44th President of the United States.

The libertarian Congressman's insurgent campaign, while never likely to trouble the main contenders in the Republican field, has been the most surprising phenomenon of the primaries. His media operation is staffed by "true believers", lobbyists and policy wonks rather than PR campaign professionals, making it a turn-off for mainstream journalists, who have all but ignored his candidacy. And yet Paul's anti-war, anti-government message has energised a fervent, mainly young, segment of the Republican party.

Internet-based fundraising events have netted $6m in a single day, and Justine Lam, his tech-savvy e-campaign director, has used YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and all the other burgeoning opportunities for viral marketing to spread Paul's message. In his most recent address on YouTube, Mr Paul said "things have gone much better than I ever dreamed".

BARACK OBAMA

The tension between the new politics that Barack Obama promises and the sharp elbows of traditional debate is felt most keenly inside the Obama media operation, where veteran Democratic party spinmeister David Axelrod has had the resources to build an operation as large and sophisticated as that of the Clinton campaign, but where he has also been trying to instill a calmer, less aggressive approach to dealing with the media.

In conversations with journalists, the media team is left contorted into chatting negatively about how terribly upset they are that the Hillary Clinton campaign is being so negative – an approach that reached its zenith when Bill Clinton injected race into the South Carolina primary tussle.

Still sporting a defiantly out-of-fashion moustache and cultivating a laid-back air, Axelrod is a must-catch figure in the "spin room" where hacks and flacks mingle after the candidates' debates. "Must-catch" because many journalists complain that Obama relies on an inner circle of advisers and messages on strategy do not necessarily filter down through the operation. Having started his career as a political reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Axelrod tied himself to several rising Chicago politicians in the Eighties and is now an acknowledged genius in the marketing of a political "personality".

He may hold the keys to a reconciliation atop the Democratic party after this divisive race is behind it. He has previously advised no fewer than five of the candidates who were on the initial slate this year and has particularly close ties to Hillary Clinton. The former first lady and her husband have regularly done fundraising for the epilepsy charity set up with his wife and two other mothers with children who suffer from the disease.

JOHN MCCAIN

The headlines that resurrected John McCain's presidential campaign weren't ones massaged by his press team, they were the headlines coming out of Iraq. Before Americans decided the surge was working, McCain was a dead man walking, and the abdication last July of his entire communications team had appeared terminal for an already near-bankrupt campaign.

Amid unpaid bills to advertising consultants and other advisers, campaign manager Terry Nelson quit, followed by comms chief Brian Jones and his two deputies. It was left to his loyal New Hampshire staffer Jill Hazelbaker to field the calls from hacks asking when her man would announce he was bowing out of the race.

Hazelbaker is a toughie, having gone through the fire when PRing the Senate campaign of Republican Tom Kean in New Jersey at the 2006 election. Fake blog postings on a Democrats website, calculated to sow disillusion among party supporters by criticising the incumbent Senator, were traced to the same IP address from which Hazelbaker was emailing New Jersey journalists. However, she never wavered from her insistence that the dirty tricks were nothing to do with her.

McCain has always made himself accessible to the press corps, and although he has parked the Straight Talk Express bus of his earlier campaign, he often carves out 15 minutes between events to stop and chat.

The press office, though, continues to have a shoestring feel. Hacks hope that the belated influx of money, now that he has become front-runner, will be channelled into a beefed-up news operation.

MITT ROMNEY

The best public relations operation money can buy – natch – for the multi-millionaire private equity mogul who has poured more than $20m of his own money into this campaign.

They may be styling their candidate as a Washington outsider and an agent of "change", but his press team leaders are the quintessential DC insiders. Communications supremo Matt Rhoades is a former research director at the Republican National Committee. And national press secretary Kevin Madden has an impressive pedigree that includes working for two former Republican leaders of the House of Representatives and as a spokesman for George Bush's 2004 re-election campaign.

Unsurprisingly, they have built the most sophisticated of all the press operations – so sophisticated that hacks complain about being spammed during Republican debates, their inboxes filling up with Romney's rebuttals of rival arguments even while the candidates are still on stage. Once named (by The Hill newspaper) as the "second most beautiful person on Capitol Hill", Madden, in particular, is genuinely liked and respected by the press pack. He does that most basic of things: calls you back promptly and answers your questions. There's a pay-off from all this niceness.

When John McCain used an eight-month-old Romney quote to suggest he was flaky on the Iraq war, the media largely agreed that McCain was using it out of context.

HILLARY CLINTON

Howard Wolfson, Hillary Clinton's communications supremo, hails from the Alastair Campbell school of spin doctoring, and the Hillary '08 press strategy is styled in his pugnacious image. Journalists complain about being cajoled, blackmailed and yelled at, and no negative story – hell, no negative sentence – goes unpunished. Access to the former first lady is strictly controlled, favours repaid, grudges nursed. Most notoriously in the campaign so far, GQ was made to pull a negative story on Hillary's presidential bid by a threat to stop co-operating with a Bill Clinton profile the magazine was also working on.

Wolfson is steeped in the politics of the New York Democratic Party and has flitted between campaign work and the private sector, where he is a partner and "crisis management" specialist at the New York office of PR firm Glover Park. Scared of flying, he will drive cross-country for hours, yelping on his cellphone at errant journalists. Other eccentricities include wearing bad jumpers on national television.

Also in the mix, devising an advertising campaign to complement (or redress) what's in the press, is media strategist Mandy Grunwald. A longtime friend of the Clintons, she was an adviser on Bill Clinton's nomination battle in 1992 and was the model for the sweetheart Daisy Green in the "fictionalised" exposé of that roller-coaster campaign, Primary Colors.

Team Clinton's "PR-as-power struggle" approach cuts both ways, of course. When you are up, even Rupert Murdoch will organise a fundraiser for you; when momentum flags, Murdoch's tabloid New York Post feels emboldened to endorse Barack Obama as an "anyone but the Clintons" candidate for the Democratic nomination.

JOHN EDWARDS

Political PR rule No 1: Don't deliberately goad powerful people inside Rupert Murdoch's media empire. When it comes to tit for tat, it is the politicians that ends up looking a tit.

After John Edwards called on his rivals to hand back campaign cash from NewsCorp executives, NewsCorp revealed that its publishing arm had paid Edwards $800,000 (£400,000) for his book Home published in 2006. An indignant Jonathan Prince, deputy campaign manager to Edwards, fired off a furious email threatening to wage a PR campaign against Fox News; News Corp's spin chief Gary Ginsberg inquired "How do you spell 'hypocrite'?" The exchange degenerated even further and ended up splashed all over Murdoch's tabloid New York Post, accompanied by a picture of the Edwards book with the title rendered "Hypocrite".

Edwards' PR never got any better, and David Ginsberg, his communications director, a veteran of the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign, enjoyed a testy relationship with most of the media, who he complained were freezing Edwards out in their fixation on the Clinton-Obama slugfest.

RUDY GIULIANI

Katie Levinson came to Rudy Giuliani's campaign with an impressive pedigree. Formerly director of television at the White House, she was fresh from California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's successful re-election campaign, but her career cul-de-sac as the former New York mayor's communications director was hamstrung from the start – even though you couldn't have known it from the polls, which at the time put him well ahead of the Republican field.

"Secretive." That was the view of the communications team from one Washington press corps veteran. "That secretiveness was part and parcel of the whole campaign, actually, and I think it was a tone set by the candidate."

Levinson's relatively small team made their share of missteps in what will surely be seen as one of the most spectacularly ill-judged political campaigns. They eschewed a full-on campaign in the early primaries, sending a blizzard of mailshots but making little contact with the local media and hardly setting foot in the states. Instead, Giuliani bet it all on Florida and lost that bet.

Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

(Junior) IT Systems Administrator / Infrastructure Analyst

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly ...

Sales Engineer - Cowes - £30K-£40K

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Sales Engineer - Cow...

Web / Digital Analyst - Google Analytics, Omniture

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading publisher in...

Sales Perfomance Manager. Marylebone, London

£45-£57k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?