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The political consultant who made Willie Horton a household name may soon be helping sway opinion in the escalating congressional debate over telecommunications deregulation, Advertising Age has learned.

The Competitive Long-Distance Coalition, comprised of the nation's deep-pocketed long-distance players and chaired by former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker Jr., is now seeking a consultancy to voice its views on deregulation.

One shop the long-distance group is trying to line up is Gannon, McCarthy & Mason, Washington, headed by political consultant Larry McCarthy; his memorable Willie Horton work undermined the 1988 presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis.

While neither the agency nor the coalition would comment on the situation last week, a lobbying war that has been brewing for two years is now boiling over as telecommunications deregulation laws approach an overhaul this year. The resulting lobbying and marketing effort is expected to total millions of dollars.

Galvanizing the political moves of AT&T, MCI, Sprint, other coalition members and the Baby Bells is a draft of the Telecommunications Competition & Deregulation Act of 1995, released Feb. 1 by Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. Larry Pressler (R., S.D.). The bill promises to dramatically alter the competitive landscape for telephone marketers, broadcast and cable TV providers, and utilities during this decade.

The long-distance marketers are now digging in for a take-no-prisoners strategy to keep a tight grip on their $70 billion industry, which hasn't seen a regulatory overhaul since 1984. Their chief opponents: the seven regional Baby Bell telephone companies, also hunting for a political consultancy to put their own issues on the front burner.

So far, the noises the long-distance players have made include warnings that consumers will lose quality of service if the market is opened to competition. Such a scenario will likely be exploited in advertising intended to sway policymakers' opinions-and possibly even consumers.

The Baby Bells are expected to lobby that the long-distance players are holding consumers captive with much higher than needed rates; competition would slash those costs.

The bill contains advantages and disadvantages for both sides in its current form; a final version is expected this summer.

Last week the long-distance coalition launched its first major salvo in the war, with a page print ad that ran in Washington editions of The Wall Street Journal and Roll Call. The ad was an open letter to Congress from Sen. Baker, created with the assistance of Edelman Public Relations Worldwide, headlined: "Congress must end local telephone monopolies-Sen. Howard Baker."

The seven-paragraph letter urged Congress to ensure that the Baby Bells allow "real competition" in their own markets before the Baby Bells are allowed to enter the long-distance market.

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