The Making of a Candidate 

Inside the Alexander Campaign Machine

Inside the Alexander Campaign Machine

By Bruce Dobie

Ben Dupuy is crazy about his job. He gets to do Lamar Alexander’s laundry.  “The people at White Way love me. We know each other by name,” Dupuy says.

“How does Lamar like his shirts?” I ask.

“Light starch,” Dupuy says. “In a box.”

Dupuy graduated from the University of Virginia in 1995 with a degree in political science. He was a protégé of professor Larry Sabato, one of the best known political scientists in the country. Now Dupuy, whose tasks involve making runs to White Way, has a campaign job that hundreds of others would die for. It did not come easily.

To get on board, Dupuy started by making personal entreaties to the candidate himself. When Alexander came to Dupuy’s home state of Louisiana to deliver a speech, Dupuy volunteered to give the candidate a ride back to the airport. With Alexander held captive, Dupuy pressed him for a job. Ever the politician, Alexander said he didn’t do the hiring but promised to pass Dupuy’s name along.

When spring break rolled around during his senior year at UVA, Dupuy didn’t head to the beach with his friends. Instead, he headed to Nashville, where he crashed on the couch of some Vandy friends. The next day, he showed up at Alexander headquarters and volunteered his services. When anyone would listen, he told them he wanted a job.

The day after he graduated, Dupuy again pointed his car toward Nashville and, once again, showed up to volunteer for the Alexander campaign. Six weeks later, when Alexander needed a new personal assistant, Dupuy got the job.

Ever courteous, dressed in khakis, penny loafers and a navy-blue pullover, Dupuy, the model undergraduate, admits that his job is “not very glamorous.” Each morning, he arrives at Alexander’s home around 7:30 to pick up a “packet of stuff” to be carried to the campaign offices. “This morning,” Dupuy says, “there was a note from Lamar to [Washington Post columnist David] Broder saying thanks for a column he had written.”

Every night, Dupuy reverses his route and drops off a packet of information for the candidate to review. The packet includes any document that any campaign worker needs to get into Alexander’s hands. Dupuy may look like little more than a glorified gofer, but in his role as courier he does exert a certain amount of control over the flow of information between the candidate and his campaign. During the day, Dupuy performs other tasks—he recently took Alexander’s car to the repair shop; during the Christmas holidays, he bought a bunch of coffee mugs for Alexander to distribute as presents. At other times, when he is not handling Alexander’s personal affairs, Dupuy says, he becomes “a sponge.”

“It’s been awesome,” Dupuy says. “I am 22 years old. I get to take a lot of Alexander’s calls. I have talked on the phone with Perot and several governors. I get to hear a lot of unbelievable conversations.”

Dupuy, like most of the Alexander campaign staff, is young—the median age of the staff is probably in the low to middle 20s. But there is adult supervision at Lamar! headquarters on West End. The oldest staffer, general counsel Forrest Shoaf, is 45.

Sometimes, with a bunch of youthful white kids shuffling about in khakis, blue jeans, baggy sweaters and tennis shoes, the place looks like a tearsheet from a J. Crew catalogue. But more often, it looks like a campus student union after a big homecoming bash. Behind where Dupuy is sitting, a coat rack has toppled over, and nobody has bothered to set it upright. It has been that way, another staffer says, for several days now. Nobody seems to care.

The desks are old, beat-up metal monstrosities, the kind of dinosaurs that state government offices tossed out 10 years ago. A few feet from the personal office of the presidential candidate himself, a rolling trash bin is overflowing with junk. One room has apparently been devoted to nothing but odds and ends. Sticking out of a box, a dusty computer is labeled with a Post-It reading, “Lamar.” A framed poster for “Homecoming ’86,” then-Gov. Alexander’s feel-good community initiative, sits on the floor. Cracked glass falls out of the frame. Nearby, atop a box of college textbooks, rests an old photograph album bulging with snapshots: Honey Alexander with her tennis group. Honey Alexander at a cocktail party. Honey Alexander with something that looks like mud all over her face.

On the wall of one office hangs a poster from the movie Rocky II. Bill Clinton’s face has been pasted over Sylvester Stallone’s. “His whole life was a million to one shot,” the caption reads. On another wall, a bumper sticker reads, “I Drink Beer and I Vote.” Nearby is posted the “The Creed of the Sociopathic Obsessive Compulsive.” Not far away, a sign screams, “Please Pardon Our Mess As We Improve to Serve You Better.” One basic fact is clear: The Alexander campaign staff is, for the most part, young, smart, impudent—and Republican.

At the coffee machine, somebody has posted an update on the TV soap Melrose Place. But the show probably has few viewers here. In the Alexander offices, everybody works long hours. The pace is fast, and the phone rings constantly. In one 30-minute period, calls have poured in from CNN, People, The New York Times and Nightline. Grimacing with frustration, one staffer hangs up the phone and says, “Basically, you can’t get anything done because the phone rings constantly, and you have to answer it because it might be someone important.” Suddenly, the phone rings again. Another frustrated look.

There are countless chores at Lamar Central. A new shipment of boxes—all bulging with Lamar’s trademark red flannel shirts—must be unloaded. Volunteers must be dispatched to Iowa to demonstrate a rising wave of support for the candidate. Staffer Stephanie Chivers, a longtime Republican crusader, is heading out to Mobile to get the talk right before the candidates actually begin to gather.

No matter how many calls flood the office, no matter how many memos must be fired off, no matter how many pots of coffee must be brewed, young male staffers somehow find time in their frantic schedules to chat up their young female counterparts. Behind the receptionist’s desk, a clean-shaven, short-haired fellow in horn-rimmed glasses shoots the breeze with a female coworker. They are not talking about the presidency. The phone rings, and the conversation goes on hold. The male campaign worker sweeps up the receiver. With admirable poise, he summons up his most serious voice and begins to preach the gospel:

“You are right,” he testifies to the caller. “People are starting to pay attention.”

Here in the 1808 West End Ave. building—a place referred to by Alexander staffers as the “Beirut Hilton” because of its resemblance to a war-ravaged Lebanon hotel—everybody has a job to do. From the receptionist up, everybody is preparing to elect the next president of the United States. The pay is paltry, the hours are long, and Alexander’s chances of success are dimming every day. But so far, it’s been a helluva ride.

In a matter of weeks, the little machine that is the Lamar Alexander presidential campaign could come to a complete standstill. It is do-or-die time for Lamar Alexander, presidential candidate.

On Feb. 12, Iowa voters gather for their caucuses. Thousands of them will gather at 2,600 schools, libraries and churches to chat, pass notes to one another and, eventually, select a Republican candidate for the presidency. Few insiders truly understand how the Iowa caucus process works, and one high-placed Alexander staffer calls it “silly to the point of absurd.” But, if Alexander wants to be a contender, he will have to run in Iowa. And Alexander is running hard. The latest poll, taken in early December, placed him in fifth place with 6 percent of the vote.

On Feb. 20, eight days after the Iowa caucus, New Hampshire holds its primary. If the purpose of Iowa is to winnow the field, the function of New Hampshire is to select the actual front-runner. The chance of anyone winning the party nomination without winning New Hampshire is slight. The most recent poll, released early this week, showed Alexander to be in fourth place in New Hampshire with 7 percent of the vote.

After New Hampshire, the primaries start raining down from the sky: Delaware is scheduled for Feb. 24; Arizona, South Dakota and North Dakota are Feb. 27; South Carolina, an important contest, is March 2, followed by Puerto Rico the next day. Georgia, Maryland, Colorado, Vermont, Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island all go to the polls on March 5. March 12 is Texas, Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi, Oregon and Oklahoma. Unlike previous years, when presidential nominating contests dragged on into the summer, some 70 percent of the delegates to the Republican convention will be selected after the California primary is held on March 26. As a result, the campaign is like a 40-yard dash, one brief, furious flash in which Alexander will either pull off some surprising upsets—or be forced onto the sidelines.

If Lamar has anything going for him, it is his campaign staff. True political junkies in America start their day by reading the American Political Hotline, an online news service that compiles every political story running that day in newspapers and on television across the country. During presidential contests, the Hotline is a must-read for political reporters and campaign consultants, since it provides a comprehensive analysis of virtually everything being said about the race.

A new Hotline feature is an index that rates the Republican presidential contenders in 10 categories, such as “personality,” “message” and “fund-raising.” The index is compiled by 70 individuals, including political reporters and Democratic and Republican campaign consultants. Thus far, Alexander has led in only one category: personnel.

Alexander has assembled one of the most talented campaign teams in the presidential race. Even more impressive is the fact that, for the most part, his team members have all gotten along. While many political campaign offices are notoriously testy places, where voices are raised and doors are slammed, the focal point of the Alexander campaign is Mr. Nice Guy—and his campaign seems to have little trouble projecting a great, big happy face.

Curiously, three of the well-mannered campaign’s most important staffers came to Tennessee from Virginia, fresh from conducting savage campaign warfare on behalf of Oliver North’s failed Senate campaign. “Lamar let it be known early on that we were going to run a positive race,” says one staffer, and from that point forward, the North campaign veterans put away their flamethrowers.

The strategy for the “Alexander for President” campaign is formulated in the mind of Mike Murphy, an energetic, experienced campaigner who commands a combination of awe, respect, fear and love from the twentysomethings who people Alexander headquarters. “Murphy is a volcano of ideas,” says press secretary Kevin Phillips. Another staffer calls him “an artist, a genius.” Dupuy, the personal assistant, calls him “the Mike Tyson of the political one-liner.”

Another campaign worker says that Murphy is so brilliant, in fact, that he is a bit absent-minded, “sort of disconnected from the planet.” “He is not a manager,” still another admits.

Murphy’s official title is “senior campaign consultant,” which means that he is responsible for all media and strategy. He has previously handled the campaigns of Michigan Gov. John Engler, New Jersey Gov. Christie Todd Whitman, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, five or six U.S. senators, and countless others. Another of his candidates was Ollie North. Murphy is best known for handling “challenger” races, contests in which his candidates—like Alexander—are not supposed to win.

If Murphy has mapped out a route to carry Alexander to the White House, he carries it around completely in his own head. On occasion, he will gather the staff together to discuss the progress of the race and to assure them that victory is possible. On this particular day, he explains how Alexander, a challenger who last week showed a mere 1 percent support in a national poll taken by CNN and USA Today, is going to win the nomination.

“Presidential nominating contests are different, because the process is stronger than the candidate,” Murphy says. Because the nominating calendar is “so compressed this time,” he insists, “the momentum out of New Hampshire is more important than ever before.” Nevertheless, he assures doubters that “the early states are accessible. You can buy TV there, organize there and campaign there. It is possible to create an organization out of nothing and create something there.... Winning these early primaries is important, and you can do that while still being unknown nationally.”

Grass-roots Republicans, Murphy explains, don’t want Dole, whom he describes as “uniquely weak as a Republican front-runner.” He offers polling figures to back up his assertions.

To win, Murphy says Alexander must have “a credible showing in Iowa and New Hampshire,” where he can emerge as “the Dole alternative.” After winning, or even placing second, in New Hampshire, Murphy predicts, “We come South, where we’re strong.

“The fact is, voters and primaries don’t pay attention until the last several weeks. This race is just starting. Our goal is to pop out, have a strong 40-yard dash, and burn this thing.”

Most political insiders concede that Alexander is facing a steep uphill battle. Some predict that, while he might be the best candidate to run against Bill Clinton in November, Alexander just won’t make it.

Observers say that Alexander’s candidacy has been frustrated, at least in part, by the lack of attention he has received from the media and the general public. Whenever the spotlight has begun to move toward him, it has moved away. He has never been able to emerge as the Chosen One, the Man to Beat Dole, the Candidate With Zip.

Alexander campaign communications director Mark Merritt, another veteran of the Oliver North campaign, knows the frustration. “In this campaign, the press have always wanted to write about the race that wasn’t. First it was Pete Wilson from California, then it was Colin Powell, then it was whether Newt was going to run. They were nonstories,” Merritt says. “Finally, they have come to the conclusion that the field is set, but the story they’re on now is Steve Forbes and the flat tax.”

According to Merritt, the candidates who get the press are the big guys, like Dole, or the extremists, like Pat Buchanan. “We haven’t chosen to say extreme things, because Lamar is bigger than that,” Merritt says.

Some of Alexander’s difficulties may stem from the fact that he seems so nice. It is difficult for some voters to believe that a nice guy can have gravitas. If Alexander doesn’t exactly thunder when he speaks, many have given him top marks as a policy maker. More than most of the other candidates, Alexander has put considerable thought into what he would actually do as president. Part of his problem, however, is that his message—a promise to return government to states and cities—is a campaign slogan for 1994, not 1996.

As a prelude to his presidential campaign, Alexander appeared in 1993 as host of Republican Neighborhood Meeting, a television series broadcast by satellite. The Neighborhood Meeting offered Alexander a brilliant means of test-marketing his political theories, and it gave him a chance to get his mug before thousands of potential supporters. Some of the messages he introduced on the show—undertaking a Republican revolution, cutting pay of Congress and shortening their terms, devolving government—have now become fixtures in the average Republican speech. Alexander deserves much of the credit for establishing the ’94 Republican message.

Now, however, Alexander’s message seems shopworn, even if he has struggled to give it a new, sharper, more cutting edge. As a result, some reporters have labeled Alexander as the sort of candidate Democrat Bruce Babbitt was in 1988—thoughtful, smart, intelligent, but unlikely to win. “We try to stay on top of the debate,” says Dan Casse, who, as the campaign’s director of policy, is responsible for the intellectual matters of the campaign.

Casse met Alexander when the former Tennessee governor was appointed secretary of education in the Bush administration. On Alexander’s first day on the job, Casse gave him a tour of the White House offices and introduced him to senior staffers. “We got to know each other and just kept in touch,” Casse says.

The bespectacled Casse is plugged in with the Washington neoconservative crowd. He worked for Bill Bennett at the Department of Education, and he helped Bill Kristol set up “The Project for the Republican Future.” For the Wall Street Journal, he authored an article criticizing the Clinton health care plan. The article drew enormous attention from Republicans in need of effective talking points. Soon, Casse and Kristol had purchased a few fax machines and were sending messages to Republicans on Capitol Hill. Before long, their memoranda were turning up as front-page news and were accepted as major new policy initiatives coming from conservative members of Congress. “It was just us and fax machines,” Casse shrugs.

“Lamar is basically a wonk,” Casse says with admiration. “Basically, I just try to stay on top of the policy debate and see where Lamar’s positions fall into that. I’m connected to the think-tank world, and I’m also really interested about what it means to live in a devolved world with a balanced budget.”

He is also interested in Nashville. “I love this city,” he says. He is dating a woman who worked in the Frist campaign. “I’d love to stay,” he says.

In the year 1995, Lamar Alexander was on the road for 256 days. He may have been tired, but Mike Tuffin, who travels with him, was probably even more tired. Tuffin has jobs he must perform as soon as he gets to his hotel room at night, a fact that means he usually gets to sleep after Alexander has already gone to bed. Then, to prepare for the first event of the day, he has to wake up before Alexander.

Tuffin, a 27-year-old with a master’s from Vanderbilt’s Owen School of Management, has little life beyond the one he lives for Lamar. Several months ago, friends say, he had his local phone disconnected. He has an apartment in Nashville, but friends say its only furniture is a mattress on the floor.

“He has no life,” says Ann McCord, a 26-year-old who works in scheduling and speaks with Tuffin frequently. “He and Lamar,” McCord adds, “are basically more than married.”

Tuffin carries Alexander’s luggage, and he keeps the candidate’s schedule. He knows whom Alexander is meeting and must prepare him for conversations. If something goes wrong, Tuffin fixes it. If something goes right, he seldom receives any praise.

Even Alexander’s best friends admit that he is not an especially sociable person. He is one who would rather read than make small talk. Most of his days are spent shaking hands. The chit-chat easily grows stale.

Tuffin’s beeper connects him to McCord and the campaign headquarters. Whenever McCord wants to contact Tuffin, she types a message into the computer, and it appears on his beeper. “Every minute of the day, I know where Lamar is,” says McCord. “We break his day into five-minute segments.”

Tuffin and Alexander are usually quiet and all business. By contrast, Honey Alexander and her scheduler/advance person/travelmate John Tolsma are a whirlwind of activity. Tolsma is a 22-year-old graduate of Duke University, where he was student government president. Honey Alexander’s public image may be relatively frosty, but campaign staffers insist that, in Tolsma’s company, she is lively and chatty. According to staffers, Tolsma gives her advice on everything from the content of her speeches to the color of her dresses.

At the helm of the entire Alexander enterprise is campaign manager Dan Pero, who came to Tennessee from Michigan, where he managed a couple of John Engler for Governor campaigns. If Murphy is the software of the campaign, it is Pero who connects all the wires and makes the machine run. He exudes good vibes, staffers say, and he knows when the rent has to be paid.

These days, Pero is in Iowa, wearing a red flannel shirt and trying to impose some order on a chaotic caucus system. His wife, Colleen, remains in Nashville, where she has taken on the challenge of figuring out the Byzantine rules that determine how a candidate gets on the ballot in each of the 50 states.

Recently, Buchanan, Gramm and Keyes were not included on the state ballot in Delaware, because their staffs misunderstood the local law. Above her desk, Pero has posted a news story about another ballot disaster that afflicted candidate Lugar. It is there to keep her on her toes. “If I drop the ball,” she says, “we’re not going to win.”

Colleen and Dan Pero have been in Nashville since March of 1994. They own a nice home in a nice West Nashville neighborhood. However, except for her fellow campaign staffers, Colleen Pero says, she knows only two people: her dentist, and one neighbor. “Socially, we have no roots,” she says. While she and her husband love the city, she says, “we haven’t gotten involved in the community.”

She doesn’t blame the city; the campaign, she says, is all-devouring. “You tend to just work. A few times we have scheduled things, but we have had to cancel them.” Colleen Pero describes the campaign as “like being on a train, traveling through a country. You tend to get to know the people on the train, but you never talk to the people out in the country. You may respect the people out there, but you just don’t have time to associate with them.”

Press secretary Kevin Phillips, who began working for Lamar in the U.S. Education Department, agrees that the profession maintains a bizarre control over a campaign worker’s life. “It is not normal. It is a strange lifestyle,” Phillips says. “You are living it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which is why just about everybody here is single and young. You have to have the energy level to keep it going.”

Forrest Shoaf, Alexander’s 45-year-old general counsel, took a leave of absence from Bass, Berry & Sims, the gray-suited Nashville firm, to join the campaign. “I find that I’m just having the time of my life,” says Shoaf. “For me, as a lawyer, and particularly a middle-aged lawyer, I feel like I’m being introduced to popular culture since Woodstock. I tell [the younger staffers] who Wilson Pickett is. They’re explaining who Smashing Pumpkins are.”

There is no end of the day in Alexander’s campaign headquarters. The phones never stop ringing, because the campaign never ends. The message never stops spinning, the words never stop spilling forth, and the campaign workers never stop working, except, once in a while, to sleep, to eat or to do the occasional load of wash.

Thrown together, intent on one goal, they seem to be joined by commitment rather than true camaraderie. Many of the younger staffers are there to make connections, not to make friends. But, in the course of affairs, friends are made. Merritt, the communications director, muses for a moment about the odd lifestyle of the political campaign worker and contemplates its rootlessness. “We’ll all probably go our separate ways if Lamar doesn’t win,” he says, surveying the weeks before him. “Heck, we’ll all probably go our separate ways even if we do win.”

Thrown together, intent on one goal, they seem to be joined by commitment rather than true camaraderie. Many of the younger staffers are there to make connections, not to make friends. But, in the course of affairs, friends are made. Merritt, the communications director, muses for a moment about the odd lifestyle of the political campaign worker and contemplates its rootlessness. “We’ll all probably go our separate ways if Lamar doesn’t win,” he says, surveying the weeks before him. “Heck, we’ll all probably go our separate ways even if we do win.”

BEN DUPUY

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COLLEENPERO

MARKMERRITT

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