Big US export: campaign gurus

Israel's Barak was just the latest to tap US consultants for campaign

Ehud Barak entered the room and, looking sheepish, shook every hand. Foreign journalists were surprised by this polite flesh-pressing in Israel, where until a few years ago, even the prime minister rarely wore a tie.

Someone had told the candidate how to look prime ministerial.

Israeli campaigns, like election battles worldwide, are being spun by some of America's most accomplished strategists.

"There's a large group ... who quietly work in elections around the world," says Michael Caputo, senior vice president at Ruder, Finn, a Washington-based public relations firm.

He estimates there are 10 to 12 "markets" where American consultants are now active.

The practice is not universally embraced. "We are exporting one of the most unattractive features of democracy," says Stephen Hess senior fellow government studies Brookings Institution in Washington. "These folks ... are unconnected to governance," he adds. "They will do anything they think will work to get a candidate elected without connection to consequences."

Yet the practice seems unlikely to flag. Half of the hype surrounding premier-elect Barak's campaign was gleaned by the American names attached to it: James Carville, Stanley Greenberg, and Robert Shrum, the team that helped put Clinton in the White House in 1992. Since his 1996 campaign, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has similarly been advised by the spotlight-shunning Arthur Finkelstein, another American.

The world has already become familiar with the arrival of the eccentric "Ragin' Cajun" in campaigns overseas. Mr. Carville advised Tony Blair's campaign against Britain's long-ensconced Conservatives in 1997, and helped Gerhard Schrder to victory in Germany last year. Poll-wizard Greenberg was involved in the May 6 Scottish elections - where Mr. Blair's Labour Party defeated Scottish nationalists.

The Clintonite threesome are not the only ones expanding their horizons. South Carolina-born campaign consultant Phil Noble has been hawking his expertise in such lands as Australia, El Salvador, Malta, and Ukraine.

AFTER taking cues from the Clinton team in the mid 1990s, Britain is now exporting its own political know-how, observers there say. Mr. Blair's press secretary, Alistair Campbell, has advised other left-wing parties abroad, and ousted Labour Party spin doctor Peter Mandelson has been a consultant in Germany.

The key to almost all their successes had been found in taking leftist parties and coaxing them back toward the center to offer mass appeal. In the post-Communist decade, parties with Socialist roots have found a particularly pressing need to refocus the agenda and repackage the message, something Clinton did very effectively in 1992.

Mr. Caputo says the trend is older than that. "All of this really started after Ronald Reagan's first successful election, when several young Democrats and Republicans went off and scored some clients. It was the first time the private sector tried to do the work of government agencies: exporting democracy," he says.

Overseas, the operative technique is to provide a candidate with some of the same simple, repetitive messages that hit home during the Clinton campaign. "Israel wants change," read Barak's main campaign slogan.

In argumentative Israel, Labor Party insiders say it helped them orchestrate a more disciplined ad campaign than they could have ever dreamed of running.

But some critics wonder if the outside experts are really tailoring their American messages to the local climate.

ONE of Barak's most-aired campaign ads attacked the economic slowdown on Netanyahu's watch and asked: "If 100,000 Israelis lost their jobs, why should he keep his?"

Roni Rimon, an Israeli political consultant who has advised several members of Netanyahu's hardline Likud Party, says it was hardly the best weapon with which to attack Netanyahu. Surveys consistently show Israelis don't vote their pocketbooks.

"I think it was an OK campaign, but I don't think it was brilliant," he says. "Most people voted for Barak ... because they dislike Netanyahu so much."

Mr. Rimon says that the real contribution that American consultants made was in the fact that their clients heeded their advice like words of gospel.

"The best thing about bringing them is not that they know better, but that people listen to them more," he says.

"They have a halo of success around them. So if an American tells them don't change the message, they don't. If an Israeli would tell them, they wouldn't listen."

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