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Consultants repackage and sell candidates

By SUSAN HAIGH
October 13, 2010

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Linda McMahon laughs while questioned by the media during a tour of a Latino community in New Haven, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Wearing a smart business suit and a friendly smile, political newcomer Linda McMahon easily sells herself as an entrepreneur who can relate to store owners in a Hispanic business district — thanks, in part, to the advice of paid professionals.

“One of my first jobs, one of my very first jobs was to clerk at a grocery store,” recalls the multimillionaire former wrestling executive, now a Republican U.S. Senate candidate, standing beside a rack of potato chip bags in a New Haven market.

McMahon explains how the small grocery and her publicly traded World Wrestling Entertainment, which generated about $106.8 million in revenues during the second quarter of 2010, share challenges such as meeting a payroll and balancing a budget.

Whether it’s knowing what to wear, where to look when the TV cameras start rolling, how to sharpen a message or how to speak to reporters, wealthy political neophytes typically rely on consultants to help transform them from well-heeled business moguls and political outsiders into legitimate, engaged candidates people can relate to and connect with.

This election season, McMahon and other wealthy newcomers — such as Meg Whitman, former eBay CEO and the Republican candidate for governor in California, and Rick Scott, Florida’s Republican gubernatorial candidate and former head of Columbia/HCA health care company, have spent millions on consultants who handle everything from television and direct mail advertising to advice on economic policy.

While consultants are nothing new to campaigns — yes, incumbents also hire them — the job can be more involved when someone is trying to pitch a rich, political greenhorn to the voters.

“The first problem that a very wealthy candidate has is that he or she needs to demonstrate to voters that they’re running for office because they really care about public policy and not because they’ve made a lot of money and they’re bored and need a new adventure,” said Darry Sragow, a consultant and former campaign manager for Al Checchi, the former Northwest Airlines mogul who spent about $40 million in 1998 on an unsuccessful Democratic primary bid for California governor.

For McMahon, “this is creation of narrative. Her life right now has nothing to do with the lives of people working in call centers or people on shop floors,” said Leonard Steinhorn, a former political consultant and a professor of political communication at American University in Washington, D.C. “But your goal is to make it appear you can identify with them.”

Both McMahon and Whitman, a billionaire, have signed on with Scott Howell and Co., a Texas-based media consulting firm that worked on former President George W. Bush‘s 2004 presidential campaign. A recent Howell ad features Whitman using a slang term most voters can relate to.

“They say California can’t be governed any more. I say baloney,” Whitman says, looking into the camera and promising to create more jobs and stop wasteful spending.

Most notable of Whitman’s consultants is Mike Murphy, a former strategist for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and for Sen. John McCain‘s 2000 presidential campaign, who makes $90,000 a month in addition to various bonuses. She also hired a former White House photographer to follow her on the trail.

Scott has hired a well-known pollster, Tony Fabrizio, who has been a key adviser to more than a dozen senators, scores of representatives, numerous governors and other statewide elected officials, and the Republican National Committee.

Scott tells a rags-to-riches story about being the son of a truck driver and JC Penney clerk, enlisting in the Navy and later enrolling in college while working full-time at a grocery store. His campaign website says he got started in business by buying doughnut shops for his mother to manage, married his high school sweetheart and is a lifelong churchgoer.

He went on to found two companies that build and operate urgent health care centers throughout Florida.

McMahon often talks about a personal bankruptcy from 1976 and how she has walked in voters’ shoes and understands what it means to lose everything.

“You spend oodles of money trying to show you’re one of us, even if the rest of the world would never have that kind of money to spend proving ourselves to others,” said Steinhorn, a founder of PunditWire, a website for political speechwriters. “The consultants will find the one or two little things and magnify them to make it appear the candidate is someone who has overcome difficulties and triumphed in the end.”

McMahon, who has said she’ll spend as much as $50 million on her race against state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal to fill the seat being vacated by Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd, hired John Rutledge, chairman of a private equity investment firm, who has advised Chinese officials and the Reagan administration. Records show he was paid $100,000 between March and July to advise her on economic policy.

“If I have questions, I know that he’s available to help me have an understanding maybe of some of the complex issues, and so, I have found that very beneficial,” said McMahon, adding that the two have discussed the global economy, the Chinese economy, free trade agreements, and issues surrounding exports and imports.

“What I find sometimes difficult is to be expected on a moment’s given notice to know what just happened anywhere in the world and to have a comment on it,” she said. “I’m a deliberative, contemplative person, and I like to have an understanding of what it is I’m going to opine on before I have a reaction to it.”

But for McMahon, first impressions are still hard to shake.

During her business tour in New Haven, a wrestling fan approached and asked a question traditional Senate candidates don’t hear very often: Did she really kick that guy in the groin?

He was referring to an old video of McMahon in the wrestling ring, dressed in a pink blazer and black slacks, pretending to kick a male employee in the groin during a skit. One of McMahon’s primary opponents repeatedly used the footage in a TV ad this summer.

McMahon took the question in stride and assured the young man she was only pretending.

“Sometimes you’ve got to make it look good,” she said, chuckling.

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Associated Press writers Juliet Williams in Los Angeles and Mitch Stacy in Tampa, Fla., contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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