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The Oops Diaries: Gay Pollster's Role in Anti-Gay TV Ad Was Concealed

Gov. Rick Perry's anti-gay "Strong" ad was one of the most controversial (and heavily mocked) TV spots of the 2012 campaign. Tribune reporter Jay Root's new book, Oops!, pulls back the curtain on the internal struggle over the ad.

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"Obviously, the Strong Ad didn’t rescue Perry in Iowa. It’s not clear anything could have at that point. But the attempt to hide [Tony] Fabrizio’s role in the making of a notorious anti-gay commercial — to leak a fraudulent version of internal division to a national publication — is another reminder of how messed up Perry’s campaign became."

Adapted from Oops! A Diary from the 2012 Campaign Trail.

From Chapter 17: “I Bow To You.”

Once the “oops” moment happened, a widespread feeling took hold within Gov. Rick Perry's campaign that a comeback was uphill at best. New Hampshire, with its New England sensibilities, was hopeless. The money spigot, which produced about $2.5 million a week when Perry first came out of the chute, had slowed to a trickle. The intense scrutiny he once faced as a front-runner had shifted to Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and, soon, to Rick Santorum. It was all coming down to Iowa, where Perry was in the single digits.

Nelson Warfield, a former top aide to 1996 GOP nominee Bob Dole, was experienced at ginning up social conservatives in past campaigns, and he decided something big and dramatic needed to happen. Something that would cut through the clutter. He proposed a TV ad script charitably described as edgy and viscerally anti-gay.

According to internal campaign e-mails, the idea for the commercial was conceived about a week after the “oops” moment. It would come to be known as the Strong Ad. Here is how Perry read it into the camera: “I’m not ashamed to admit I’m a Christian. But you don’t need to be in the pews every Sunday to know that there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.”

When the ad was unveiled on December 7, it set off a viral uproar on YouTube, spawning hundreds of sometimes hilarious parodies and outrage from viewers. By the summer of 2012, the Strong Ad had generated more than 8.3 million hits on YouTube, with more than 770,000 clicking on the “dislike” button and only 26,000 having hit “like.” It was the third most-clicked-on political video of 2011.

The ad struck an intensely raw nerve with gay activists. They were particularly angry that it had happened on the watch of Perry pollster/strategist Tony Fabrizio, who had worked alongside Warfield on the Dole campaign. Although he had not publicly come out of the closet, Fabrizio was known in personal and political circles to be gay. He had done lucrative polling work for pro-gay groups, including the Log Cabin Republicans and an organization fighting a gay marriage ban in Florida.

On the day the spot ran, Jimmy LaSalvia, director of the pro-gay Republican group GOPround, wrote a furious denunciation on Twitter. “I’ve just about had it with faggots who line their pockets with checks from anti-gay homophobes while throwing the rest of us under the bus,” he said.

In case there was any confusion, LaSalvia later Tweeted that he was referring to Fabrizio. When the ad hit the airwaves, the Huffington Post contacted the Perry campaign and asked what role Fabrizio had played in the crafting of the anti-gay message. Ray Sullivan, Perry’s communications director, didn’t know the details.

Hardly anybody did beyond Perry’s Washington, D.C.-based consultants — the “consulterati,” as they were known among the governor’s Texas loyalists. Sullivan said HuffPo had told him the news organization was more likely to post a story about the ad if Fabrizio favored it and played a role in its creation, since the spot would clash with his pro-gay political background and was provoking furor from gay rights activists.

Sullivan discussed the issue with Warfield. “I think Nelson took it upon himself to try to inform or convince them that Fabrizio was not behind the ad and in fact didn’t like it,” said Sullivan. In other words, Warfield tried to make the story go away. On that count, he failed.

He was quoted on HuffPo on Dec. 8, the day after the ad was unveiled, under the type of headline no campaign wants to see: “Rick Perry’s Anti-Gay Ad Divides His Top Staff.” Warfield told HuffPo in an e-mail that Fabrizio was “against it from the get-go.” Fabrizio had even sent out an e-mail calling the proposed ad script “nuts,” the website reported.

The Miami Herald also reported on Warfield’s and Fabrizio’s supposed disagreement over the ad. The newspaper ran what was said to be the Nov. 18 email exchanges about the ad between the two, presumably provided by one of them.

The paper published an email from Warfield about his desire to test the Strong Ad script as an “aggressive values question” in a poll of Iowa voters, to see how they’d react to a candidate who thinks it's terrible that gays can openly serve in the military, while public schools can’t stage Christmas celebrations.

Fabrizio responded to Warfield’s email five minutes later: “We already tested the taxpayer funding of abortion and planned parenthood. Nelson — your question is nuts, just nuts.”

Once those emails were leaked and Warfield publicly described the campaign’s deliberations over the ad, news outlets widely reported and re-reported that Fabrizio had condemned the ad internally. But the single email exchange concealed the real story.

Numerous internal emails and interviews with key players indicate that Fabrizio not only favored testing the ad script, he expressed awe at the number of voters who responded positively to it. Then, once it was turned into a TV commercial, emails show that he agreed it was a “good idea” to use the anti-gay ad as a Perry fundraising tool.

The only Fabrizio email exchange that got leaked to the media was the one in which he referred to the proposed question from Warfield as “nuts.” It was sent at 11:33 a.m. on Nov. 18, 2011. There was more, though. Here’s what came next:

Warfield (11:39 a.m.): “So nuts we could lose our 6%? Heaven forefend. Let’s not test it. Better not to know. Let’s just argue our econ plan is about 7 millimeters better than all the rest. Yep, that’ll make ’em forget about all those Mexicans in study hall at Texas A&M.”

Fabrizio (11:41 a.m.): “Didn’t say I wouldn’t test it, just said it was nuts. LOL! Touchy today, huh?”

At the exact same moment, Perry’s longtime Texas pollster, Mike Baselice, sent an email urging the two to tone down the question. But Fabrizio sided with Warfield and argued against taking out the reference to gays in the military.

Baselice (11:41 a.m.): “How about this: Rick Perry will end the Obama Administration’s war on religion because he knows his faith and this nation’s Christian heritage can make us stronger (strong again)."

Warfield (11:46 a.m.): “I would test it the way it was written. If you take the gay stuff and the Christmas stuff out of it, it loses its punch.”

Fabrizio (11:47 a.m.): “Mike — Nelson is right. (As much as I hate to admit it.)”

After results of the poll of GOP voters about the Strong Ad language were tallied and reported inside the campaign on Nov. 21, Fabrizio’s response can only be described as gushing: “WOW!” he wrote in an email to the top Perry hierarchy. He said he had never seen so many people in a survey agree with a polling question, adding: “Nelson — I bow to you. You were right on your question!”

By the time the ad got cut, the Texas loyalists had been marginalized and were no longer in the loop. Even speechwriter Eric Bearse and Perry political director Wayne Hamilton, who had deep experience with evangelical voters not only in Texas but also in Iowa, didn’t know about the ad until it was put into rotation to be aired.

Senior Perry advisers say the data showed the “top lines” were high, meaning people said when prompted that they look more favorably upon a candidate who took the position being articulated in the survey questions. But a deeper “regression analysis” showed it didn’t move people.

“Out of the six or eight things we tested, the weakest was the gays-in-the-military thing,” said a top Perry aide who reviewed the data. “The best thing was still just the generic Perry position on faith and the constant onslaught against people of faith.” Obviously, the Strong Ad didn’t rescue Perry in Iowa. It’s not clear anything could have at that point. But the attempt to hide Fabrizio’s role in the making of a notorious anti-gay commercial — to leak a fraudulent version of internal division to a national publication — is another reminder of how messed up Perry’s campaign became.

There was internal division over the Strong Ad, alright, but it wasn’t between Fabrizio and Warfield. It was between the Washington consultants who would probably never work for Perry again and the Texas loyalists who thought the governor was harming his legacy by embracing a harsh view of gay soldiers, who, after all, were risking their lives right alongside their straight counterparts.

Mind-boggling dysfunction had reached the highest levels of the Perry campaign. Ray Sullivan offered an apt description of Warfield’s attempt to stop HuffPo from writing a negative story about the campaign’s partially closeted pollster. The same thing might be said of Perry’s entire campaign: “It was a risky strategy that didn’t work.”

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