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Politically correct

Future campaign managers learn that politics doesn't have to be a dirty business

By Craig SavoyeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 5, 2002


Their candidate is in trouble. A reporter has discovered that the pol lied about his credentials, and now the scribe is calling, on deadline, for a response. The threat of a campaign meltdown looms.

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One team of campaign managers recommends that their candidate stonewall. Another group insists he should come clean and apologize to voters. A debate erupts.

Welcome to Campaign Management 101, or, as the course at Oakland University north of Detroit is officially known, Political Campaigns. It's largely the brainchild of John Klemanski, a longtime political science professor and occasional political consultant who - fresh out of grad school - once managed a campaign himself.

The Great American Game, as politics has been called, is the subject of endless study, but academic courses on the art and science of campaigning are a rarity.

The class is a draw for politically minded students who in the past might have settled for being just another blade in a grass-roots campaign - stuffing envelopes or planting lawn signs. After the course, they'll be able to manage a statehouse run.

"What I try to do in class is to teach strategy and some technique, but also ethics," says Mr. Klemanski, who has seen his share of hustlers on the hustings. "I'd hope I can contribute to the increasing professionalization of campaigns. It's my belief you can win and do the right thing at the same time."

The demand for trained campaigners is clear in Michigan, where 100 statehouse seats are up for grabs every two years. This year, Klemanski had to cap the class at 30 - with a few distance-learners thrown in - and leave others on a waiting list.

Learning the ins and outs of managing a campaign has long been accomplished on an apprenticeship basis. Typically, idealistic young people do grunt work while learning strategy from grizzled veterans, and then take a larger role in the next campaign. But that process can lead to an unnecessary reinventing of the wheel.

"For young political activists there's a crying need for someone to help them with the big picture, to think more theoretically, but also to give them some practical knowledge and just tell war stories," says Ken Brock, a Democratic consultant in Michigan. He delayed college a year to intern in a state representative's office at age 18, and is now a guest lecturer in the course.

Mr. Brock recalls attending a lecture, early in his career, by a high-ranking official in Walter Mondale's presidential campaign. "For the first 10 years I was in politics, I lived by those notes," he says.

Likewise, the handouts given to students here constitute a bible for budding political gurus. The class covers tasks such as analyzing a district, crafting a message, and positioning a candidate, as well as the nuts and bolts of polling, fundraising, budgeting, advertising, dealing with the media, and organizing volunteers.

Even phrases tossed out during the weekly 3-hour class may well echo in students' consciousness throughout their political careers: "Always seize the semantic high ground" when partisan bickering breaks out; "Remember, the candidate is a product and elections are a one-day sale."