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Consultant's ads help Santorum pop up in the winner's circle

Thursday, November 09, 2000

By Cristina Rouvalis, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

You might think that John Brabender would stop bounding nervously around his office and savor the moment.

On election night, John Brabender, right, goes over the arrangements for Sen. Rick Santorum's entrance to the Westin William Penn's 17th floor ballroom with campaign director Keith Schmidt. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

After all, here it is 49 days before Tuesday's victory by U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, and Brabender, the Republican consultant, has just landed the biggest punch of the campaign.

People like his "Pop-Up" television commercial that shows Santorum romping with his five children. "The filming of this ad was interrupted by lunch and two naps," reads the last Pop-Up caption, which looks like it was lifted from a VH1 music video.

The fresh-off-the-e-mail polls show the quirky commercial has moved Santorum's numbers 15 points in the Pittsburgh market, an area with love-hate feelings toward the candidate.

But Brabender isn't relaxing after creating one of the most-talked-about commercials of the political season. He jumps out of his chair as though it were a springboard platform, downs another caffeine-heavy Mountain Dew, his mind racing ahead to the next ad, already worried that it will be a letdown after this breakthrough commercial.

"I am in purgatory," Brabender says, flashing his boyish grin, "and hell is weeks away."

By now you know that Brabender never came close to a brush with hell. In fact, he had the closest thing to a stress-free election, going three for three by helping Santorum get re-elected, Melissa Hart win a spot in the U.S. House and state Attorney General Mike Fisher win re-election.

But Brabender, 44, fretted and maneuvered for every possible advantage in the warp-speed pace of this campaign, which began for him in January. His firm, Brabender Cox Mihalke, is known for its unconventional advertising and was dubbed "the GOP creative wizards" by George magazine. He has also done many out-of-state races including ones with Ohio Rep. Bob Ney.

"I consider John Brabender to be one of the best consultants. His skills have won him national acclaim," says Jon Delano, a political analyst for KDKA-TV and former chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Doug Walgren. "He is very creative. The Pop-Up ad is very unorthodox.

"Brabender also has a reputation for being very negative. He knows how to take it to his opponent," Delano says. "He wields such a fine scalpel that you are dismembered before you know it."

With a round face and short straight bangs that bring to mind a younger Jimmy Connors in natty Republican garb, Brabender showed his two sides during the Santorum-Ron Klink race.

The man who created the warmly evocative Pop-Up ad also did the stark "Puzzle," an attack on the character of Rep. Klink. The commercial showed jarring puzzle pieces of Klink's face and talked about how he was sued by a contractor, landlord and two former employees for nonpayment.

In the county executive primary last spring, Brabender devastated Larry Dunn with an ad that showed him seeming to nod off in public -- footage Dunn said was slowed down.

"It was the dirtiest ad I have ever seen in my life," Dunn says.

But Brabender, who was working for eventual victor Jim Roddey, says, "I can't help that he fell asleep. People understood that Larry Dunn was someone who was asleep at the switch for years."

Brabender's Mr. Negative reputation surfaces mostly in his hometown of Pittsburgh, a city that winces at advertising body blows.

"In Washington, we are the firm that doesn't do negative enough," he says. "In Pittsburgh, we are the firm who goes negative. The more memorable ads are negative."

The hardest thing for him is getting flak about a negative ad in his hometown.

"A lot of consultants find it amusing when it happens. They wear it as a badge of honor. I don't. I take it extremely personally.... They think I can run a negative ad and I don't have a heart and soul. But it will bother me for days."

On election night, political consultant John Brabender pauses in the Westin William Penn hotel while the opponent's commercial plays on a movie-sized screen behind him. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Ridge his first client

The man who helped Rick Santorum and Tom Ridge rise to power grew up admiring Lyndon Johnson in a staunchly Democrat and highly political family in Erie. His uncles and grandfather and other relatives were always running campaigns on the Democratic ticket for city council or another local office. The youngest of three children, he spent much of his youth golfing, working at the nine-hole course his family owned or hanging out at campaign headquarters.

He estimated that he cut half his classes at Gannon University, often sneaking over to the campaign headquarters of his uncle, who was running for county executive. It wasn't until he studied marketing in an MBA program at Cleveland State University that advertising classes fascinated him.

In 1982, he and his partner, Jim Cox, started Direct Marketing Services, a direct-mail firm for everything from political candidates to banks. They didn't put a sign saying "Republican" on the door.

"We didn't care if they were Democrat or Republican. They could have been communists, just as long as they were able to pay the bills," Brabender says.

It happened that the first person who walked in the door was Tom Ridge, a young Republican running for Congress. Brabender did his direct-mail leaflets. Just like that, Brabender became a Republican consultant, even though he says he has, on occasion, voted for a Democrat.

It wasn't until 1990 that he did his first TV commercial, and it was for a young underdog named Rick Santorum. No one expected him to topple Walgren. The race tightened though, and a week or so before the election, Walgren spent more on advertising.

Brabender turned Walgren's advertising blitz from a positive to a negative. On a low-budget radio commercial, Santorum told voters that every time they heard a Walgren commercial, to think of how Walgren voted for a pay raise for himself. Brabender viewed that ad as crucial to the win.

"John is a great creative mind," Santorum says. "This guy is an amazing talent. I have a lot of faith in him. ... One of the things I do, which a lot of candidates don't do, is I let John be John. I don't put controls on him. I let him use his creativity."

Santorum gave him the freedom to make the Pop-Up commercial, which started out as leftover footage from another ad. Santorum wanted it as a keepsake. Once Brabender began playing with the frames, he knew he was looking at a commercial. The footage showed a softer side of a senator whom critics called strident or arrogant.

Brabender didn't want to ruin the home-movie feel with a narrator's voice. So the next thing you know, he was out getting VH1 music videos.

A pollster thought Brabender was nuts. Brabender worried that he was too close to Santorum's kids; he is godfather to 2-year-old Sara Maria. Would other people find them as endearing?

But even weeks after the Pop-Up ad ran in Pittsburgh, people were still talking about it.

"When are you going to run it again?" people asked Santorum.

The commercial ran in the late weeks of the election in other parts of Pennsylvania.

A major statewide race such as Santorum's can bring Brabender's firm up to $1 million. Brabender gets paid a 5 to 15 percent of the price of airing a commercial. But he says three or four people work on the campaign, and the profits have to cover them on off-election years.

"I do well, but we are not fabulously wealthy."

Positive win-loss record

It is 27 days before the election, and Brabender is in his non-eating phase.

Weeks earlier, nervous campaign energy made him inhale too much pizza, Chinese food and chocolate. But he has lost his appetite now. The polls are coming weekly, but next week they will start pounding him daily.

He rarely gets to eat dinner in his home in Marshall with his wife and two children. But after November, he vows, it will change.

"I come home after my kids are asleep. It's not fair to them."

On the floor outside his Station Square office is a jumble of a leather jacket, a red tie, a blue blazer, and assorted papers, videos and packages. The most orderly thing about the offices are the dozens of Telly and Pollie national advertising awards lined up along the wall.

"A lot of people think he is all over the place," says Tiffany D'Alessandro, director of broadcast on his young, fiercely loyal staff. "But if you ask him, 'John, where is that paper?' he will know exactly where it is on his stack. There is a method to his madness."

His cell phone rings. Again. He is on the cell phone about 3,000 minutes a month, about 1,600 more minutes than his allotted time.

Brabender spends much of his days behind an editing computer, fixating over the most minute detail. In the Pop-Up commercial, he obsessed about the size of the Pop-Ups (the bigger the better).

Like a ballplayer with a slugging percentage, Brabender has a win-loss record of more than 78 percent. He takes every loss personally.

"He doesn't like to let clients or families down," says his wife, Rebecca, an emergency room physician who is on leave to raise their children. "I think he feels more responsibility in defeat than in winning."

Some former Brabender clients who have been on the losing side of the equation call him exceptionally creative and energetic. Linda Dickerson, who failed in her 1995 bid for county commissioner, says, "He takes his niche in the advertising community very seriously. It's a tough niche. It is a pressure cooker."

But Bill Ravotti says his worst mistake during his 1998 campaign against Rep. William Coyne, D-Oakland, was hiring Brabender.

"I think he is overrated and overpriced," Ravotti says. "I am not trying to make excuses. I am the candidate, and we could have had the best commercials in the world and not won. But you should go fighting on your own issues, not the cute things they make for clever commercials to win awards."

Brabender responds: "Frankly, they can take our advice or not. After the fact, he wanted to do it differently. He never expressed it during the campaign. A lot of times, people are disappointed when they lose."

Debate advice

It is five minutes before the fourth Santorum-Klink debate, and Santorum is waiting in a chair in a second-grade classroom at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill. Brabender suddenly darts to the wall, reading a list of rules out loud as last-minute advice for Santorum:

"Keep your hands and feet to yourself," he quips.

Santorum and his advisers laugh at the class clown. But Brabender is not laughing during the debate when Klink accuses Santorum of being prejudiced against people of other religions.

The next week, Brabender goes negative against Klink, airing the "Puzzle" commercial even though the polls say his candidate is up 52 percent to Klink's 35.

"Rick was not going to be the guy who throws bombs. But he wasn't going to be a punching bag either," Brabender says.

Nervous on election night

A day before the election, with Santorum still holding a double-digit lead, Brabender refuses to help write an acceptance speech for the senator. It might jinx things.

"It's like being way ahead in the Masters and imagining what it would be like to be on the last round and wear the green jacket," he says. "Once that happens, you are through."

On election night, he is pacing and running back and forth in the ballroom of the Westin William Penn hotel, even after the TV stations and wire services declare Santorum the winner.

"I want to see numbers," he says.

He is manic all night, even after Klink concedes at about 10:40 p.m.. As a longer version of the Pop-Up commercial plays on a movie-size screen to a cheering crowd, Brabender is standing on the balcony, frantically directing how loud the music should be.

Then Santorum gives his acceptance speech to applause. It is not until the confetti and red, white and blue balloons soar through the ballroom that John Brabender stops fidgeting and allows himself a smile of relief.

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