Republicans' Wizard of Ads Goes Where Few Are Willing

Fred Davis, Adman Behind Christine O'Donnell's 'I'm You' Spot, Talks About His Daring Life in Politics

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NEW YORK ( -- Fred Davis paced back and forth as he talked on the phone in an effort to stay awake. It was just after 7 p.m. on the West Coast, but he had been working for the past 15 hours on Tea Party queen Christine O' Donnell's latest campaign spot, and he was on the verge of losing consciousness.

Fred Davis
Fred Davis
"If I don't move around, I will collapse," he said. After almost four decades as an adman and the past 16 as a creator of some of the country's most memorable political ads, Mr. Davis said he had been thinking about leaving the business. The brutally condensed production cycle of political campaigns was taking its toll. "You might be my last interview with a reporter -- ever," he said.

"I'll believe it when I see it," said Rob Jesmer, the executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is the GOP's official election arm for Senate candidates. "He gets too excited about this business to leave it, I think."

Mr. Jesmer and Mr. Davis had worked closely together on Sen. John Cornyn's campaign in 2008. "Sen. Cornyn and myself were attracted to Fred because he brings a unique perspective to campaigns," Mr. Jesmer said. "Fred's a brilliant guy, but I haven't always agreed with his ideas."

Mr. Davis has long been known as a maverick adman among Beltway hopefuls, producing unlikely and sometimes shocking commercial spots for candidates daring enough to engage his services. "You may hate or love it," he said of the voters to whom he makes his appeals. "I just want to make sure you notice it."

The 58-year-old Oklahoma native got his start in advertising unexpectedly at 19 when his father died and he had to take the reins of the family's PR business. His first political client was his uncle, James Inhofe, who ran for Senate in 1994. "He didn't really pay me," he said. "He paid for the ads, of course, but he also didn't get to approve them."

In February of this year, Mr. Davis created perhaps the first highly visible attack-ad of the season, known as the "Demon Sheep" ad. During the California Senate Republican primary, Carly Fiorina released an ad criticizing opponent Tom Campbell for claiming he was a fiscal conservative. The ad featured a man dressed in sheep's clothing with glowing red eyes, crawling through a meadow, suggesting Mr. Campbell was really a spender in fiscally conservative clothing.

While Ms. Fiorina's candidacy was considered controversial within a fairly narrow spectrum of political philosophies, another one of Mr. Davis' latest clients has a far more expansive range of controversial viewpoints. Ironically, while the Tom Campbell attack ad had a supernatural quality, Mr. Davis' first spot for Ms. O' Donnell was purposefully sober.

Known as the "I'm You" ad, Ms. O' Donnell faces the camera and starts, "I'm not a witch. I'm nothing you've heard. I'm you." She then talks about her platform, but the spot was another unforgettable event in this election cycle, which proved Mr. Davis' belief that getting voters' attention isn't just about theatrics.

"What I always try to find is the good in the person themselves and not invent something and try to fit them into that mold," he said. "You have to find something about that person that's real and work with that."

With Ms. O' Donnell, he met her over dinner and within five minutes came up with the "I'm You" concept. She wasn't the freak outlier as portrayed by the press, he decided. After dinner, he scripted the spot in the hotel and shot it the following night. "That's politics," he said. "You only have so much time."

Notwithstanding the Tea Party's sometimes contentious relationship with the GOP, Mr. Davis said Ms. O' Donnell's link to the conservative movement didn't affect his approach in crafting her message. "You never, ever want to abandon the horse that brung ya," he said, "but you need more people," pointing to the fact that she can't win entirely on the votes of the Tea Party faithful.

Recently, however, Ms. O' Donnell told "Good Morning America" that she regrets the "I'm You" ad, which only increased visibility of her supposed extreme views.

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