McCain adman takes another risk and wins

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He's a former newspaper reporter who went into politics at a young age. He kept edging closer and closer to political advertising and eventually produced ads for numerous candidates, even though he never had any formal advertising training.

He was behind one of 1988's most noteworthy negative ads for George Bush, featuring Michael Dukakis riding around in a tank, and has reaped reams of publicity for attack ads. Yet he wants to make politics a place that people can look up to.

Most of all, GOP presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain's ad executive, Greg Stevens, is a man willing to take a risk.

Last week that risk -- agreeing to produce ads for a presidential candidate in an uphill fight against a seemingly invincible frontrunner -- appeared to be paying off dramatically, as Sen. McCain upset conventional wisdom and trounced Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary.

While Mr. Stevens, 51, credits Sen. McCain's personality and forthright approach on the Granite State campaign trail for winning over voters, it was the ads that gave many of them their first images of the Arizona politician. They were images of a war hero and prisoner of war but also of an anti-Washington outsider, presented in just seven or eight spots, fewer than his opponents ran in the state.


"It's very simple," Mr. Stevens said of the campaign's strategy. "You tell this guy's story and then you expose him to voters."

Mr. Stevens, president of Stevens Reed Curcio, Alexandia, Va., handled the candidate's Senate re-election race two years ago, and he admits stepping into the McCain presidential bid looked dicey. But it was a risk he was willing to take because of the candidate.

"In terms of politics, I have done everything there is to do," he said. "I have done dozens and dozens of Senate races, governors' races and congressional races . . . But [this time] I wanted to work for somebody -- and this sounds hokey -- that I believed in and felt it would be a joy to help."

That Mr. Stevens is producing anyone's advertising seems remarkable given his background.

At 25, the former newspaper reporter, who bounced between New Jersey and Maine while growing up, was hired by New Jersey politico Thomas Kean to be press secretary for Gerald Ford's campaign. He stayed afterwards to help Mr. Kean with his unsuccessful bid for the governor's seat. In 1978, Mr. Stevens returned to the Garden State -- this time, to aid in Mr. Kean's second, this time successful, gubernatorial run. He then became Gov. Kean's chief of staff.

For Gov. Kean's re-election campaign in 1982, Mr. Stevens hired then-political consultant Roger Ailes, and it is Mr. Ailes -- now chairman-CEO of Fox News -- who Mr. Stevens credits for much of his advertising expertise.


Mr. Ailes in 1985 offered Mr. Stevens a job that he turned down, but two years later, after Mr. Ailes won the Bush campaign account, Mr. Stevens signed on to open Mr. Ailes' Washington office.

"I had no background in advertising at all, no specific training in producing. I learned from Roger the key is [determining] the strategy and the message," and after that others can style creative reflecting that message, Mr. Stevens said.

From there, it was straight into advertising. He opened his own agency in 1993 and handled numerous races, frequently producing the ads -- sometimes writing them himself or working with others on copy. Four years ago, Mr. Stevens was one of the GOP ad executives enlisted at the last minute in Sen. Bob Dole's presidential campaign.

Now, Mr. Stevens' agency also handles several non-political clients, which he declined to name.

While best-known for his negative ads, Mr. Stevens is proudest of his positive ones.

"It is a lot harder to produce an effective positive ad than an effective negative ad, no question about it, because you have to hold people's interest," he said. To date, the McCain campaign has run only one ad that could be considered negative -- and that one called attention to Gov. Bush's negative tactics.


Mr. Stevens said he tries to handle negative ads with a touch of humor, but at least one has drawn criticism.

In 1998, a spot he produced for Virginia Sen. John Warner turned out to be faked -- it depicted Sen. War-ner's opponent shaking hands with a former Virginia governor. It drew an apology and his firing by the Warner campaign.

Mr. Stevens, who is married with three children and both a home and a small fishing camp in Maine, said he met Sen. McCain during the Dole campaign four years ago and was impressed.

"In a world where so many of these people don't necessary reveal themselves, and don't necessarily talk straight, this guy is absolutely unique," he said. "He still inspires me."

This year's campaign too, is a breath of fresh air and fun, he said.

"There is no question that we are still a very long, long shot. But we are in the hunt and we are playing. There are a lot of people who aren't playing. One of the greatest things [Sen. McCain] said when he decided to run was, `I'm going to give you a few things that we are going to follow, and one is we are going to have a good time. We are going to have fun.' I can assure you that this has been a riot.


"It was the only condition on which I would get involved, after going through as many of these as I did and having lousy experiences," Mr. Stevens said. "Frankly the Dole campaign was like going to the dentist twice a day."

Mike Murphy, an ad executive who Mr. Stevens replaced four years ago in the Dole campaign, has also been hired by the McCain campaign, as a communications coordinator. Mr. Stevens handles the ads, several written with partner Paul Curcio. A number of them feature clips of speeches by Sen. McCain, with scripts penned by his speechwriter Mark Salter.

Mr. Stevens credits Sen. McCain's earnestness on the stump for the candidate's gains.

"Everything is right there. It's available. That is what voters are getting into, the idea that what they are seeing is really who this person is. They are connecting to this idea that there is no game playing, no shaving around the edges, particularly following on heels of Bill Clinton. This is a guy who is telling me not just what I want to hear, but what I should hear."


Mr. Stevens, who has missed time with his wife and kids while working on the campaigns, welcomes the break after the New Hampshire primary; but he still looks forward to the fall race, hoping to set new trends.

"I enjoy working with young people, speaking and going to various colleges and trying to light a spark with kids about getting involved in politics. It is one of the reasons I like McCain . . . because he talks about inspiring young people to care about the country. It used to be that people who held office were admired. I would very much like to dedicate some of my effort as we go forward to helping young people understand that there are ways to get involved."

Even after the New Hampshire victory, Mr. Stevens isn't willing to rest on his laurels. "I know that the pressure will increase as we do better and better, but I also know that many of the things that worked in New Hampshire will work in other places."

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