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Potential G.O.P. Convention Fight Puts Older Hands in Sudden Demand

April 19, 2016

Article originally appeared in The New York Times.

The last time Stuart Spencer courted delegates at a Republican National Convention, in 1976, he kept a roll of quarters in his pocket for when he had to run to the pay phones and call in reports to President Gerald R. Ford’s campaign headquarters.This year there will be no running. Two hip replacements later, the closest Mr. Spencer plans to get to the convention floor in Cleveland is the deck of his Palm Desert, Calif., home, where he calls in advice to Gov. John Kasich’s campaign almost every day.“I’m 89, man. I’m lucky to be here,” said Mr. Spencer, who last worked in politics 25 years ago.Political campaigns are often viewed as a young person’s game, especially in an era in which digitally savvy, data-fixated strategists track the behavior of millions of voters nationwide and target them with increasing sophistication and precision.But this year, as Republicans face the prospect of a contested convention, the party is turning to its oldest hands, who learned how to fight over delegates using walkie-talkies, loose-leaf notebooks and quick-footed young pages.The graying delegate wranglers like Mr. Spencer have a rare and suddenly sought-after skill: They understand the arcane rules and complicated interpersonal dynamics that can persuade often unpredictable state delegates to back a candidate for president.Many of them were foot soldiers in the 1976 battle between President Ford and Ronald Reagan and find themselves unexpectedly pulled back into the game.Paul Manafort, 67, all but disappeared from American politics in recent decades to advise international leaders, including strongmen like Ferdinand E. Marcos, the former dictator of the Philippines, and Viktor F. Yanukovych, the deposed former president of Ukraine. Now, though, Mr. Manafort, who worked for the Ford campaign 40 years ago, is the lead convention strategist for Donald J. Trump. “I wanted to do one more,” he said.Charlie Black, 68, who is better known today as the chairman of a Washington lobbying firm that represents clients like Airbus and Google, is helping the convention operation for John Kasich, the Ohio governor. “I thought I would sit in the bleachers,” said Mr. Black, who worked on Reagan’s behalf at the 1976 convention.As it happens, the Cleveland convention in July will be a reunion of sorts for Mr. Black. One of Mr. Black’s field lieutenants in the Reagan delegate operation was a 24-year-old Mr. Kasich.Many Republican officials believe that a contested convention, one that begins without delegates knowing who the nominee will be, is all but certain this July. Though Mr. Trump has a lead of 744 delegates to 559 for Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, neither man seems likely to secure an outright majority of 1,237 by the convention. And without a majority, the convention votes again — on second, third and subsequent ballots if necessary — until one candidate attains the 50 percent plus one that will make him the nominee. Most delegates are not required to support whomever their state’s primary- or caucusgoers did after the initial ballots.Unlike the typical campaign effort, which involves trying to win over states or congressional districts or large blocs of voters, the convention involves a relatively tiny universe of people who will decide the candidates’ fate — 2,472 in all.When the Ford and Reagan campaigns were engaged in a delegate-by-delegate fight for the nomination, they mainly relied on thick paper dossiers stuffed with every knowable fact about their targets, from whom they married to whether they liked to play bridge or do needlepoint in their spare time.“It’s literally in the trenches, one person at a time,” said Mr. Black, who was just 28 at the 1976 convention. “We’re going to have to do it the old-fashioned way,” he added, “which is to make friends with people.”In many ways, the first contested convention of the 21st century could hark back to the 19th and early 20th centuries, when nominees were often picked after many rounds of balloting. Assets like money and media exposure will matter less than a candidate and his team’s ability to connect on a human level with a few thousand delegates in a hall.“You’ve got to know who they are, where they’re from, what they eat, what their hobbies are, where they went to college and on and on and on,” Mr. Spencer said in an interview by phone from Palm Desert. “That was true then. It’s true now.”In an example of how small the elder strategists’ circle is, Mr. Manafort and Mr. Black are also former business partners in a consulting firm they ran with Roger Stone, another 1976 alumnus who is also advising Mr. Trump this year, though in an informal capacity.Mr. Stone, who was a Reagan delegate wrangler at the time, said he especially admired how Mr. Manafort and the Ford team understood how to leverage the power and prestige of the White House in that battle. A state dinner with Queen Elizabeth, cocktails in the East Room, a personal visit from Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller — the Ford campaign threw all the perks of the presidency it could at delegates.“These guys were masters at this,” Mr. Stone recalled. Reagan, a former governor of California and Hollywood actor, tried to impress with his star power. He persuaded John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart to join him for dinners with delegates. But as he and his team learned, it was not the same as a call from the president.James A. Baker III, 85, who ran the Ford delegate operation and is staying neutral in this nomination fight, summed up the strategy of any effective delegate operation as: “Acquire delegates, protect your delegates and steal other delegates.”Mr. Ford, he said, was uniquely advantaged because of “something we called ‘the Maison Blanche.’”“You bring an uncommitted delegate to a dinner for the Queen of England, and it’s a fairly persuasive argument,” Mr. Baker added. While the Ford campaign had to be extremely sensitive to questions of corruption because scars from Watergate were still so fresh then, he said, “there are not a lot of rules about what you can and cannot do.”A popular joke at the time about the patronage and favors dispensed by the White House was that when Ford stepped off Air Force One, the band did not know whether to play “Hail to the Chief” or “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”Mr. Manafort, who has known Mr. Trump for 30 years, is keeping his counsel as to what perks of the Trump world he might dole out. Lunches at his Mar-a-Lago club, rides on the Trump 757, perhaps? Those and the celebrity allure of Mr. Trump are definitely assets, Mr. Manafort said.“Who would you want to sit in a room with if you were an undecided delegate? Do you want to sit with Ted Cruz or with Donald Trump?” he said.Mr. Cruz’s campaign, in keeping with its desire to seem as distant from Washington and the political establishment as possible, has hired mostly people with experience in internecine state convention battles.Mr. Spencer, who has been retired since 1993, said he was happy to be playing a role, even if at a distance.Although he cannot be in Cleveland — he had to give up campaign travel, just like golf and tennis, when moving around got too difficult — he said he could not resist the allure of one more race.“I’ll give it one last shot,” he said.

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