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Advance Planners Make Political Campaigning Look Easy - 2004-01-24

It's the weekend before the New Hampshire primary, an event that will cap many months of intense campaigning in coffee shops and living rooms, in town hall meetings and at factory gates, often in sub-freezing temperatures. The folksy flavor of these encounters can make running for president seem almost casual. But as VOA's Adam Phillips has been discovering in New Hampshire, what looks like spontaneity on the campaign trail takes a lot of planning.

With the New Hampshire primary vote just days away, the pace of the campaign has quickened, and the overall tone has become more intense. But you might not sense that from the scene in Lebanon, New Hampshire, in a small multi-purpose room in the basement of the town library.

That's where Democratic presidential candidate and retired general Wesley Clark has just been introduced to a couple dozen veterans and other townspeople, and is now seated on a folding chair.

With the TV cameras rolling and the radio microphones pointing at the candidate, Joe Clark - no relation to the general - one of the campaign's so-called site advance specialists, can finally take a deep breath and sit down himself. This was a very different room when he arrived to set things up many hours ago.

"When I came in it was a blank space with a bunch of empty bookshelves," he said. "What we did was we filled the empty space behind him with books, we had locals make five signs on red white and blue placards, and we put them behind him. We put New Hampshire and an American flag right off his left and right flanks respectively, and we put chairs in the round.

Today we're meeting with a lot of veterans," he continued. "We're going for a really intimate almost roundtable discussion. And for that reason we put him in the round, just to give you that school gymnasium, really warm soft feel. So if you are looking at him from head on, you're gonna see the General with veterans sitting around him looking at him intently and being intimately close to him. And that's exactly the message we want: veterans listening to Clark and ultimately supporting Clark."

Campaign advance planners choreograph such tableaux for at least two different audiences. On the one hand there are the New Hampshire voters who attend the event and those they influence, and on the other are the millions of television viewers in far-flung parts of the nation who might see a snippet of the event on the evening news or glimpse a photo in newspaper, magazines or on the Internet. Joe Clark wants to affect both groups.

"Every event we want to be as 'New Hampshirian' as possible if that's even a word! We really want to go for the local flavor and capture that because we really want people to see that the general is not only here in New Hampshire, but that he is surging," said Mr. Clark. "And the way we do that is you build a lot of crowd around him, you get tiers of people and you show that he is really here surrounded by New Hampshire citizens and they are excited about it.

To be completely honest, we want people sitting in Oregon, in Hawaii, in Alaska to look at this and say 'Look, the General is in New Hampshire and he is going to make a strong impact in that primary, because this is a real litmus test going into the general election'. And we think that will have universal appeal because everyone wants someone who does well in New Hampshire," he said.

Effective national campaigns must please the media too, and employ so-called press advance staff to get journalists the technical and logistical support they need to follow candidates around and report what they say and do.

"When you see them on TV you don't think about all the work that goes into making it look like it looks and sound like it sounds. But that's what press advance is," he explained.

Sunny Gettinger directs press advance for General Clark.

"You want to make their job as easy as possible and you want them to write the story the way you want them to write the story," she said. "So you give them as much as you possibly can."

As public interest in General Clark's candidacy has increased, the size of Ms. Gettinger's hand-picked staff has been growing.

"The people I'm looking for, the people I am sending on the road, have to be personable," she explained. "It's not that they never freak out, but they have to have a certain amount of grace under fire."

While Librarian Olive McGregor winds the ancient standing clock near the circulation desk, she tells me that those who receive a visit from a national candidate sometimes need patience and grace under fire as well.

"Someone called up yesterday, to find out if they could use the room this afternoon for General Wesley Clark to meet some veterans and we said yes," said Olive McGregor. "Two hours later, they called back and said they changed their mind and didn't want to meet here. Then this morning, a little after ten, they came and said they would like to have the room and that there would be about 25 people here. And I'm sure there are many more than that!"

Still, like many in the town, Ms. McGregor believes these visits are worth the fuss.

"I think its great that we get to see these people," she said. "Some of the kids got to shake his hand and they were quite thrilled. They are planning to watch [for it on] television tonight. So maybe they can become interested in politics. Some of the kids in the 7th and 8th grade stood up just as he was coming and got to shake his hand. I think it's kind of neat!"

At a convention for college students at one of Manchester's larger venues, local TV reporter Jean Mackin waited for yet another candidate to take the stage and roll up his sleeves, and shared this memory of the Republican candidate's primary campaign.

"There was one night where George W. Bush actually walked into the kitchen of a pizza restaurant on Elm Street in downtown Manchester NH, he was standing in the kitchen slicing up pizza and asking folks who wanted a slice," reminisced Jean Mackin. "Order up! That's retail politics. I just love the democratic process!"

I'm not sure how much advance teamwork that little slice of American politics required.