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GOP ‘Theme Team’ Made Poor Showing

November 16, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Is excessive exposure to C-SPAN hazardous to the political health of Republicans?

The election of 1998 was not kind to the GOP ``Theme Team,″ the group that flocks to the microphone during morning and evening comment periods in the House to hammer home a Republican message.

Three of the five House Republican incumbents who lost on Nov. 3 were Theme Teamers. That gave the 50-member team a casualty rate of 6 percent _ more than twice that of House Republicans as a group.

One Theme Teamer who lost, Mike Pappas of New Jersey, now regrets singing ``Twinkle, twinkle, Kenneth Starr″ on the House floor _ a one-minute ditty written by a GOP Theme Team staff speechwriter, Michael Nyilis. The Democrat who ousted Pappas, Rush Holt, built a mocking advertising campaign around snippets of Pappas’ song.

Theme Teamers Vince Snowbarger of Kansas and Jon Fox of Pennsylvania also were ousted by Democrats in tight races.

Two other team members lost bids for higher office. Rep. Mark Neumann of Wisconsin failed to unseat Sen. Russell Feingold, and Rep. Jon Christensen of Nebraska lost the race for his state’s Republican gubernatorial nomination.

Is the Theme Team out of steam? Not at all, says its captain.

Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga. acknowledged that members who step up regularly to the microphone do so at some risk. ``There’s an axiom in politics that you can’t be beat by what you don’t say,″ he said, but added that playing it safe also has drawbacks.

``The point of politics is not to sit back meekly but to engage in the debate,″ Kingston said. ``On the one hand, our critics _ many in the press _ say, ‘They’re so stuffy, they don’t have a sense of humor.’ Then you say something cutesy and they want to pound you.″

In 1997, Theme Teamer Jim Ryun of Kansas endured a few days of unpleasant publicity after delivering a speech virtually identical to one that a fellow team member, Rep. Joel Hefly of Colorado, had given minutes earlier.

That inadvertent repetition of a scripted speech highlighted the real truth behind what may appear to C-SPAN viewers as spontaneous bursts of partisan forensics: Democrats and Republicans both organize their speakers to emphasize a daily message.

About 30 Democrats participate in the ``Message Group,″ which meets daily while Congress is in session.

Republicans go one better. The Theme Team publishes a newsletter, meets weekly to swap ideas and draws on draft speeches written by a full-time Hill staffer _ Nyilis, the heretofore anonymous creator of ``Twinkle, twinkle, Kenneth Starr.″

Nyilis’ business card identifies him as ``Speechwriter, Theme Team.″ He works for Kingston, who took over Theme Team responsibilities in 1997.

Nyilis declined to comment about nursery rhyme lyrics, which drew laughs and applause when Pappas sang it on the House floor July 21.

Shed no tears for the Theme Team. In the upheaval following the election, the member of the House leadership most secure in his job is Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, a Theme Teamer.

Rep. Jennifer Dunn of Washington, another team member, is a candidate for majority leader.

And Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, yet another team member, is running for Republican conference chairman. He is challenging the incumbent, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, yet another Theme Teamer.