How GOP School Helps Candidates

Weekend sessions urge hopefuls to `utter sane sentences,' find strong males with pickup trucks

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

`YOU are the people who will determine the future of this state.'' The speaker is Royal Masset, director of education and training for the Republican Party of Texas.

His audience is more than a hundred GOP candidates for offices ranging from county clerk to the United States House of Representatives. They have given up a recent weekend and come from all over Texas to attend a candidate school staged by the state party organization.

Starting in 1985, the Republicans held four schools per election cycle. This year, they are stepping up the pace as part of Texas Republicans' new focus on winning grass-roots offices. The GOP will hold sessions almost every weekend, training up to 1,000 candidates and party workers on how to campaign.

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The state Democratic Party has held a similar school for the past two election cycles. But their century-long hold on most county courthouses means Democrats need hardly come to Austin to learn how to campaign. Except for those in Dallas and Houston, Republicans have no residual knowledge of campaign tactics. Candidate schools help fill that void.

``The average voter will spend five seconds on your race,'' Mr. Masset tells the would-be county clerks and constables. ``This school is geared toward influencing that five seconds.''

The setting, a neat but cheap hotel conference room in north Austin, is a lesson in itself: Hoard your campaign dollars. Candidates spend an average of $30 for each vote they win in the state.

In addition to Masset, the candidates hear from Zack Dawes. Now a campaign manager for Republicans, Mr. Dawes used what he learned in a similar school held in 1985 to overcome a better-financed primary opponent for Travis County commissioner. In the general election, Dawes lost by just 800 votes in the heavily Democratic county.

What did the Republican hopefuls learn about winning?

* Proper motivation. ``If any of you are here today because you think you're going to make a lot of money [after you win], you're crazy,'' Masset warns. ``You'll lose money. Don't run.''

* Attitude. Voters want to elect ``the person who can make things work out,'' Masset says. Two candidates might have similar resumes and positions. But one has a smooth campaign operation. The other has problems: The volunteers bicker, mailings go out late, the media ignores his press conferences.

Your campaign is a test, Masset says. ``If you lose, it means you haven't yet learned the skills necessary to govern.'' And half of the candidates at the school will lose, he warns.

* Opinion leaders. Meet individually for 15 minutes with 200 to 500 of them. ``It's a ritual that will go a long way toward establishing you as a serious candidate,'' Masset says.

Most candidates don't campaign effectively. Instead, they file for office but then hide from the voters. When you visit opinion leaders, ``they can sense that you're normal. The fact that you can utter sane sentences means everything,'' Masset says.

Don't try to impress them, though. ``You will make your largest impression by being impressed by them.'' Praise them effusively. ``To the degree you make them believe in themselves, they'll believe in you.''

* Name recognition. All depends on it. Massive numbers of signs are the best way to get it. The best signs are simple: Bush. Clinton. Don't have more than one design, or people will think you are two different candidates.

``If you have a friend who is a commercial artist who wants to help, avoid this person like the plague,'' Masset says. But seek out those rare people who seem to live to put up signs - usually strong males with pickup trucks.

Three weeks before the election, put up thousands of signs overnight. ``It's devastating,'' Masset says.

* Issues. Don't write 50-page ``white papers.'' Instead, say why you are running in 50 words or less, Masset says. Give no more than three reasons. ``Communicate quickly. The public doesn't understand issues, but their gut is very effective,'' Masset says. ``You're not elected because you're an expert. You can hire experts.''

* Media. ``Perception is reality,'' Dawes says. Start talking to the media right away to get practiced. Don't treat them as the enemy, or they will be. Focus on your message. ``You don't have to answer every question. They can't print something you don't say.''

* Fund-raising. ``There are things you can do with money that you can't do any other way,'' Dawes says. Get a finance chairman to make your appointments with potential donors for this unpleasant but essential task. Don't ask for their ``support.'' Their check will never arrive. Ask for $1,000 on the spot. ``Nobody ever said: `$1,000! Get out of my office!' '' Dawes says.

* Strategy. Run a simple campaign. Go door to door five or six nights a week, spending no more than a minute at each. Two nights of walking will win more votes than a fish-fry fund-raiser that takes six weeks of staff time to prepare.

Dawes walked his precinct starting at 4 p.m. every day, rain or shine. ``The first day or two I was petrified,'' he says, but soon walking was the most enjoyable part of the campaign. By November, he had contacted 10,000 households, of which only five slammed the door in his face. He carried the precincts he walked by 8 percent more than the others.

* Campaign headquarters. They don't win votes. Don't hang out there. Don't even have one, if you can avoid it. If there are more than two volunteers there, they will fight.

``You know how Republican women can be - `Betty Lou didn't bring the donuts. What are you going to do about it?' '' Dawes says. Stay out of the details and above the fray.

* Friends. They won't volunteer. But they will invite you to coffees at their homes, which are worthless because you'll be preaching to the choir. Since you can't say `no,' make sure they are held after dark, when you've finished walking.

* Family. Use it, Masset advises. ``Nothing is more effective than having your mother say: `My boy was a good little boy and will make a good sheriff,' or having your son say, `My mommy is a good cook and will make a good judge.' ''

* Voters. Most know nothing about the candidates, and once they enter the voting booth, they're overwhelmed. Eighty percent of voters vote on a party basis, although only 8 percent admit it.

``Your campaign should ignore that 80 percent,'' Masset says. ``You're not going to change people's lifelong philosophies.'' Target the precincts where the undecided 20 percent lives.

Fifteen percent of the 20 percent will vote for the name they recognize. Three percent vote on image, like the color of your billboard or the sound of your name. Two percent vote on issues.

* Election day. Don't go fishing. ``You can win one-quarter of the undecided votes on Election Day,'' Masset says. The candidate should go to the busiest polling location and shake hands.

* Afterward. Win or lose, be gracious.

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