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Mark Shields - Everything is a "poll"

Let me tell you, from personal experience, what the presidential campaigns of Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton are experiencing hourly in late February of 2008.

Shortly after the cooling of the earth - in 1970, to be exact - I was managing the campaign of a gifted public servant, Democrat Jack Gilligan, to be governor of Ohio. Our opponent, the rather colorless Republican state auditor who was squarely on the political defensive because of a widely reported GOP statehouse scandal, was not helped when his press secretary indiscreetly, if candidly, was quoted observing of the auditor, "To meet Roger Cloud is to forget him."

By early October, it had become apparent that Jack Gilligan was going to win big. Among my "new best friends" was the prominent Republican CEO of one of Ohio's biggest banks, who personally called to invite me to lunch with him in his private dining room, complete with sterling, crystal, fine china and hovering waiters.

The banker, whom I had never met, told me how he had been wanting for quite a while to get together with me. At the end of the lunch, he gave me a business envelope, because, as he confided, he knew campaigns were always "short of cash." Of course, he trusted me to protect his identity from appearing in any campaign financial reports, because that might be professionally awkward.

Since the statute of limitations has long since run out, I can now tell you there was in that envelope several thousand dollars, which went directly to buy TV time for the candidate. And yes, listed among the donors of $1,000 each were your faithful correspondent and several other good friends in the campaign.

In politics, perception is reality, and if you are seen as a winner, you are treated like a winner. Everything is a "poll." When your telephone calls, even to important strangers, are either immediately put through or promptly returned, that's a poll. When other candidates are eager to appear on the same platform with your candidate and do anything they can to help, that, too, is a poll. When people who had supported your opponent almost overnight discover virtues in your candidate that even your candidate's own mother had not noticed and tangibly express their admiration by writing sizeable checks, that is one more poll.

This is just a pale glimpse of the heady high the Obama campaign folks are inhaling during their current winning streak. When you're winning, as anybody who has been there can testify, the beer is colder, the air is fresher, the girls are prettier - and smiling - and just about anything seems possible.

Two years after Jack Gilligan won the governor's race, I spent that fall traveling the nation with the 1972 Democratic vice-presidential nominee - another noble American - Sargent Shriver.

George McGovern was 20 points behind Richard Nixon. When you're 20 points behind and not getting any closer, it's not a lot of fun to get up in the morning and go to work. Morale among the campaign workers suffers. Back-biting and second-guessing become frequent. When you telephone only semi-important people, you find yourself spending a lot of time on hold.

Even though you can't smell it, you have about you the unmistakable scent of loser, and you get to hear some of the most creative excuses imaginable to explain the conflicts that prevent local Democrats from appearing on the same stage with your candidate when you campaign in their hometown: "Our family has had this longstanding appointment at the taxidermist's," or, "My favorite nephew is graduating that day from driving school," or, "That's the morning I'm getting my dog's teeth cleaned."

The Clinton campaign folks may not be enduring identical indignities, but these are tough days, because in political campaigns, everything is a poll.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.