Bush ‘Truth Squad’ Could Number 100 By Fall
WASHINGTON (AP) _ George Bush calls it his ″truth squad,″ an army of Republican stand-ins with orders to take shots at opponent Michael Dukakis. The Democrat’s camp has a less charitable label: ″hit squad.″
No matter the name, the Bush surrogates - made up of senators and House members, governors, and other prominent Republicans - are already having an impact on the 1988 presidential race.
The surrogates are fanning out across the country and criticizing the all- but-certain Democratic nominee, sometimes speaking in the same cities hours before or after Dukakis, a technique the Bush campaign calls ″bracketing.″
For a national campaign strapped for cash, the tactic is inexpensive and enables the vice president to get mileage from the sharp attacks without having to utter the words himself.
The Republican strategy became apparent during a Dukakis swing through the South last week when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., spoke in Nashville and Miami a day ahead of Dukakis, branding the Massachusetts governor soft on crime and an opponent of the death penalty.
Dukakis called it negative campaigning and derided McCain as someone who ″doesn’t know beans from brown bread.″ But the GOP footwork was not lost on Dukakis strategists.
A few days later, Bush delivered a strong law-and-order speech to the National Association of Sheriffs in Louisville, Ky. After the room cleared, one sheriff lingered near the press area. Wearing a large ″Dukakis″ sticker, he was hard to miss.
Sheriff Robert C. Rufo of Suffolk County, Mass., which includes the city of Boston, suggested the vice president - not Dukakis - lacked a crime-fighter’s record.
″At all these conventions, there are going to be very strong Dukakis supporters. They’re not going to be shy,″ said Leslie Dach, communications director for the Dukakis campaign.
But Dach said that, while Dukakis will have some surrogate speakers, he will not field anywhere near the number that Bush is using.
″Ultimately, this kind of tactic is not going to work. George Bush’s problem is he hasn’t articulated his own vision of the future. And that’s what people want in a president, they’re not looking for somebody who can organize a hit squad,″ Dach said.
Although surrogates have been used before, including elected GOP officials who spoke out vociferously in 1984 in behalf of President Reagan’s re-election effort, the Bush campaign is seeking to turn the practice into a science - carefully targeting speakers to subjects and audiences.
″We have about 10 out there now. By the fall, we’ll have 100,″ said Alixe Glen, a Bush spokeswoman.
Bush, who says the surrogate speakers will play a vital part in his campaign, told reporters last week that he thinks the differences between him and Dukakis remain out of focus - and that’s where the surrogate speakers will help.
″I’ve got to spell it out (the differences) and get surrogates - those other people who believe as I do - to spell it out,″ Bush said.
Some of the surrogates have specific assignments.
For instance, New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu’s marching orders are to chip away at Dukakis’ so-called ″Massachusetts miracle,″ which the neighboring governor derides as the ″Massachusetts mirage.″
On Friday, for example, Sununu told reporters no one should be surprised at Dukakis’ signing a $40 million cigarette tax into law because ″everytime he’s had a problem, he’s run to a tax increase - even when he ran the first time and gave an iron-clad commitment there would be no tax increase.″
Former Massachusetts Gov. Ed King is also speaking on behalf of Bush with the same message, and Illinois Gov. James Thompson and New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean have also been active as surrogates.
To counter his high negatives among women voters, Bush is counting on a number of prominent GOP women, including Rep. Lynn Martin of Illinois and Sen. Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas to get out the word that he is concerned with issues that affect women.
Vanquished GOP presidential rivals Rep. Jack Kemp of New York and Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas are also busy on the surrogate circuit. Dole, the Senate minority leader, ″has already been to nine state conventions and we will be to 20,″ said Dole aide Walt Riker. ″He’s just crashing his way downfield.″
The Bush campaign and the Republican National Committee are sharing the expenses of the surrogate program.
But one Republican skeptical of the ultimate value of the technique is McCain, the Arizona senator who dogged Dukakis in the South.
″The Dukakis people were clearly stunned by this,″ said McCain, noting that Democrats retaliated by attacking him at home for missing Senate votes while campaigning for Bush.
″I was gone 24 hours. I missed five votes, all of which were either non- essential or carried by margins such as 92-to-3.″
McCain said that surrogate speakers have been used extensively in the past by both parties and that he believes the concept ″is helpful but only minimally″ to candidates.
″That’s why I was intrigued at the way Dukakis and his people overreacted,″ McCain said. ″I think it’s ridiculous that he responds by saying I don’t know the difference between beans and brown bread. What kind of response is that?″
McCain, who said he does know the difference, is turning down the RNC’s offer to pay for his trip.
Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, who expects to speak extensively in the West, said the surrogate program is a chance to correct what he claims are misconceptions among voters that are hurting Bush in the polls.
″A lot of the polls show either two-fifths or three-fifths of the people polled said that Dukakis was more conservative than Bush. That isn’t a loss of focus, that’s a loss of your eyeglasses,″ Simpson said. ″There isn’t any way Dukakis is going to pull that one off.″