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Tams Set Stage For Candidates

October 9, 2000

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ George W. Bush was going to attack the marriage penalty, so his campaign needed a setting that conjured up matrimony. A church? No, they reasoned it might be offensive to play politics in a place of worship.

Ah, said a local Republican, how about a former church still being used for weddings?

Perfect, they thought.

The search for perfection _ in the large moments, the littlest details _ never stops for those who set the stage, often days in advance, for the presidential candidates.

``We try to build a picture,″ said Silvia Ferroni, part of an advance team that arrives a few days ahead of the Texas governor and his entourage.

They bring in lights that make for high-quality television and wire the room for sound. They recruit motorcade drivers and make sure Bush poses for pictures with them before leaving. They book the right hotel, draft the schedule and provide food and phones for traveling reporters.

Their counterparts on Democratic nominee Al Gore’s campaign do virtually the same thing.

Among their most important jobs: filling the right place with the right people.

For Bush’s marriage-penalty event, they chose the Gothic-style Great Hall in Pittsburgh’s North Hills. Two days before, Ferroni and her team arrived to find tulle and ivy still decorating the light fixtures and wrapped around the railings _ leftovers from a weekend wedding.

Perfect. The tulle and ivy stayed put.

But they had to import other decorations, notably a pair of giant posters that looked like architects’ blueprints. Sent in from headquarters in Austin, Texas, they were on display to symbolize Bush’s ``blueprint for the middle class.″ The advance team made sure they arrived intact.

In many ways, this was a simple event. At a large rally, they coordinate strobe lights, confetti, balloon drops and music to pump up the crowd. Sometimes, the campaign has to set up phone banks and pass out fliers to attract an audience.

This time, it was invitation only.

At Bush’s side sat a handsome young couple, engaged to be married, ideal human props for the day’s message. They landed on local TV newscasts and the front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Are they voting for Bush, reporters asked. Yes, they are.

In fact, the room brimmed with Republicans who already liked Bush, which made for a less-than-combative question-and-answer session.

One questioner wanted to know Bush’s favorite books. Another noted that Gore was trying to take credit for the strong economy and probed: ``How can you get the message out that it was a good strong economy in spite of the Democrats and not because of them?″

Perfect.

Aides explained that the crowd was hand-picked, though not to pack the audience with admirers. Rather, they wanted married couples who would personify Bush’s drive to eliminate the marriage penalty, a quirk in the tax code by which some couples pay more than they would if they were filing separately as singles.

But the audience seemed more GOP than I-take-thee. Lots of single people said they were invited by local GOP and conservative groups, including several members of local college Young Republicans.

``I’m going to get married in maybe seven years or so,″ offered Parker Mills, a 17-year-old freshman at Carnegie Mellon University.

But the local newspapers and TV stations didn’t interview Mills. They talked to Dan Steele and Vicki Trybend, who plan to be married the day after Thanksgiving and were singled out by Bush to talk about the marriage penalty.

``Hopefully ... when he’s president we won’t have to worry about it,″ Trybend told KDKA, Pittsburgh’s top-rated news station.

The advance team also keeps the wrong people out of the way.

``We try to control demonstrations or protesters,″ said Brian Montgomery, director of advance for Bush. ``We work with local police for them to go somewhere to express their opinion.″

In this case, that meant positioning two large Bush buses directly between the hall and protesters across the street.

``I don’t know what they’re afraid of,″ said Ron Kniess, leader of the local International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, who was holding a Gore sign and chanting the vice president’s name.

The advance team thought it came off, well, perfect.

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