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DEBATE NOTEBOOK: ‘Spin Doctors’ Start Early At Debate

October 7, 1996

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ They call it ``Spin Alley,″ a stretch of blue carpeting situated dead center in a conference hall crammed with journalists run dizzy by political excess.

One by one _ starting hours before Sunday night’s debate _ aides and advisers for Bob Dole and Bill Clinton walked to the designated area at the Hartford Civic Center to feed a hungry press corps with happy talk about their candidates.

President Clinton ``is rested and ready,″ press secretary Mike McCurry told reporters. Funny thing, but Dole spokesman Gary Koops showed up later to say of his boss: ``He’s rested. He’s ready.″

A sign posted on a column high above McCurry said ``Spin Alley,″ referring to the term used by the political world for this bizarre ritual.

Eighteen tiny TV platforms, lined up side by side, looked more like a horse track starting gate than makeshift studios. But the platforms were built so TV stations could interview the campaign surrogates as they hopped stall to stall with their pre-packaged quotes.

Dozens of Clinton campaign officials, White House aides and most of the Cabinet represented Clinton. Dole’s backers included a bevy of Republican governors.

McCurry summed up the spin scene: ``We’re burbling banalities.″

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A form of pre-debate spin is to play the``expectations game.″ The object: Act like your candidate stands no chance of winning so less is expected out of his performance.

``There’s not much that we can do about (the debate),″ McCurry lamented, ``because everybody expects the president to win.″

Dole spokesman Nelson Warfield called Clinton ``the most gifted debater of a generation″ but added, ``Americans have a long history of supporting the underdog.″

Dole told a reporter he had no surprises up his sleeves for the debate.

``Oh, I think the only surprise is I’m going to show up,″ he said.

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The Dole campaign did have one front-row surprise for Clinton: Billy Dale sitting front-and-center at the debate in an attempt to rattle the president. He was surrounded by photographers as he sat down.

Dale, the former travel office director, was fired along with his staff in May 1993 because of indications of mismanagement and financial abuses. Dale was accused of embezzling, but he was later acquitted of charges. Since, he has vowed to do anything to ensure Clinton doesn’t get re-elected.

A Dole campaign adviser, James Cicconi, explained why Dale wanted to watch the debate up close: ``The guy wanted to be there and he went through hell because of this guy″ Clinton, said Cicconi.

Lockhart replied, ``When you have nothing to say, you resort to gimmicks. It’s indicative of a campaign that can’t find a message.″

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Hundreds of Ross Perot supporters showed up at nightfall at the nearby Bushnell Park to protest his exclusion from the debate. Carrying an American flag hung upside down, a symbol of distress, they chanted: ``We Want Ross!″

Marching through the park, Perot supporters dressed mostly in jeans and sweat shirts exchanged angry words with a passing band of Dole supporters in blue blazers.

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Only about 1,300 people, some who were notified as late as Sunday, had invitations to the debate. Actress Whoopi Goldberg was one of the early celebrity sightings.

Some guests spent a long time in their seats, including those who had to be in place two hours before the 90-minute debate.

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Dole said he knew a lot was at stake in the debate, which he hoped would help reinvigorate his lagging campaign. But asked if he did any last-minute prepping the night before, Dole said, ``Not really. I was going to do a little last night. I decided, well, why not just get a good night’s sleep.″

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