Media Team Gears Up For Bush Campaign

As a barrage of ads from Democratic presidential hopefuls filled the airwaves in Iowa and New Hampshire last week, Mark McKinnon got his media team on the phone together for this first time, warning that re-electing George W. Bush next year will be a tough challenge.

To help package the president’s image, sources said, media/advertising director McKinnon has assembled a team that mixes Bush administration newcomers and veterans. From the ad-agency side, the group includes Scott Howell, who runs political shop Scott Howell & Co. in Dallas and this year launched The Wolf Agency to handle general-market ads; Hispanic-ad specialist Lionel Sosa, who founded what is now Bromley Communications in San Antonio and also ran Garcia LKS; and Harold Kaplan, a creative director at Young & Rubicam in New York who works on Dr Pepper. Kaplan and Sosa were on Bush’s media team for the 2000 election.

Sources said Jim Ferguson, chairman and chief creative officer at Dallas-based Temerlin McClain, and Stuart Stevens, a Washington-based political consultant, are expected to be called in for duty next summer during the final push before the election. Ferguson worked on Bush’s 2000 campaign as part of his Park Avenue Posse, named for the New York address where he held the first creative strategy session. Then Young & Rubicam’s president and chief creative officer, Ferguson recruited several high-level Y&R staffers to the team.

Ferguson referred calls to the Bush campaign; Stevens was not available.

Kaplan and Howell, who last year created ads for winning Republican Senate candidates including Jim Talent of Missouri and Norm Coleman of Minnesota, referred calls to McKinnon. Sosa did not return calls.

McKinnon, once a Democratic consultant whose résumé includes work on Michael Dukakis’ 1988 presidential bid, declined comment. He has crafted Bush’s media strategy since 1998, when Bush ran for re-election as governor of Texas. A source said McKinnon anticipates a tough fight, no matter who the Democratic contender, because the electorate is so polarized.

Other members of the media team include Hollywood media consultant Fred Davis, whose credits include Elizabeth Dole’s winning campaign for a Senate seat last year, and political consultants Alex Castellanos and Robin Roberts of the Alexandria, Va., firm National Media. Castellanos, who also worked on ads for George H.W. Bush, produced the most memorable Republican National Committee spot of 2000: Attacking Al Gore’s healthcare proposal, the ad briefly flashed the word “rats.”

Backing up the media team is a group of ex-White House officials, known within the administration as the “super surrogates,” who will craft strategy, sources said. The advisers include Tucker Eskew, who left his post as director of the White House Office of Global Communications last Friday to start a crisis communications consulting firm; former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer; former White House counselor Karen Hughes; and Mary Matalin, former assistant to Bush and counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney.

Though the Bush campaign has not yet aired any commercials, some ad experts say the image campaign is well under way. “The Thanksgiving visit to Iraq was the launch of President Bush’s re-election campaign,” said Mark DiMassimo, CEO and creative director at DiMassimo Brand Advertising in New York, who helped put together an all-volunteer ad team for Bill Bradley’s 2000 presidential campaign. “Just like Howard Dean has found out that he can take the lead for the Democratic nomination on his pure opposition to the war, Bush wins or loses based on how he positions himself on [Iraq].”

On television, Bush was seen with tears in his eyes in Baghdad and serving a holiday dinner to U.S. troops. “That was campaign advertisement No. 1,” DiMassimo said. The president’s polling numbers did get a boost, climbing from an approval rating of 56 percent before the trip to 61 percent afterward, according to the National Annenberg Election Survey.

Tom Messner, a partner at Euro RSCG MVBMS Partners who has worked on Republican campaigns, said his advice to McKinnon would be to study Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984 and Bill Clinton’s in 1996, which he considers the most successful media efforts for an incumbent president.

“For Reagan, they endured attacks for months and months, and when the smoke cleared … launched a positive campaign for the president and an attack campaign by the RNC,” Messner said. “For Clinton, they began 16 months before Election Day with a withering barrage of attack ads on [Bob] Dole and [Newt] Gingrich in all of the swing states. Two different but wildly successful strategies.”