When campaigns prep for debates, they have to decide which audience is most important: the inside media/politico audience or the voters.
Hillary Clinton faced that choice this week. Thursday’s debate was crucial for her. She was bleeding, and the sharks (or piranhas) were circling.
She chose to play to the media. Her team figured she had to show she could stand up to attacks from Obama and Edwards.
So her strategy was: Don’t wait to be attacked. Attack first.
That assured her of Comeback Kid headlines. Exhibit A was Bigfoot David Jepsen of the Des-Moines (Iowa) Register, who declared her the winner: “That’s why the lady is the champ.”
In 1992, the Hunt campaign faced this dilemma against Jim Gardner.
The first debate, Gardner pummeled Hunt over pardons he granted as Governor. Hunt tried to stick to a positive script. But the media wrote the debate as Gardner on offense and Hunt on the defensive.
Our supporters panicked.
We had one cool head in the campaign, media consultant Frank Greer. Greer wasn’t sure the voters saw the debate the same way the media did.
So we did a dial group. Frank was right. When Gardner attacked, his numbers went down. When Hunt stuck to his script, his numbers went up. As Phil Carlton observed at the time, “they love that bullshit.”
Nevertheless, we had to change the insiders’ perspective. We had to change the headlines. So, next debate, Hunt jumped on Gardner from the beginning.
Sure enough, the media reported that Hunt was on offense and Gardner on defense.
The voters might not have liked it, but we changed the storyline. That’s what Hillary did Thursday night.
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