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Mike Leavitt's memorable decision to not go negative

By LaVarr Webb

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, April 11 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt visits with Deseret News Editor Paul Edwards about his new book, Sept. 30, 2013.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News Archives

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On Thursday, the Salt Lake Chamber honored former Gov. Mike Leavitt as “A Giant in Our City.” The Chamber was soliciting stories and memories about Leavitt. Here’s an experience, going way back to 1992, when I managed Leavitt’s first campaign for governor. It illustrates the character of Leavitt in contrast to today’s routine nasty, negative campaigning.

Despite working incredibly hard, we had just come in second at the Republican state convention to Richard Eyre, a formidable candidate who clearly outperformed us at the convention. So it was Eyre vs. Leavitt in the primary election.

A few days after the convention the campaign team gathered, a little discouraged, for a campaign retreat to plan our primary election strategy. To get away from phones and distractions, we traveled to Loa, Wayne County, and met in the basement conference room of the Road Creek Inn near the Leavitt family ranch. We brought in two very experienced national political consultants, Eddie Mahe and LaDonna Lee, friends of Leavitt, to help guide our planning efforts. Eddie led us through a sophisticated and brutally honest strategic planning process. After several hours we had dozens of flip-chart papers plastered all over the walls of the conference room, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates; likely messaging pro and con; possible allies, supporters and opponents; fundraising capabilities; grassroots organizing abilities; and so forth. We pored over survey research and the campaign calendar. We also had to take into account Merrill Cook, a third party candidate who had the financial capability to spend a lot of money on advertising.

When Eddie had wrung out of us every insight and observation he could get, it was time to draw conclusions and make strategy recommendations. Eddie was rather grim about our prospects. Eyre was a popular speaker and television/radio personality, had written a number of books, and was much better known to the general public than was Leavitt. To this point in the campaign, our focus had been almost entirely on 2,500 state delegates. Eyre and his wife, Linda, also ran a popular Joy School program with tens of thousands of Utah families involved. He had many strengths. Eddie also worried that Cook would run a negative campaign against Leavitt.

Eddie noted that Leavitt, coming out of the convention, had nothing but raw name identification and was extremely vulnerable to negative attacks. Primary voters had a positive view of Eyre, while Leavitt was almost entirely undefined. The best chance to win, Eddie said, would be to erode Eyre’s positive image with some negative advertising. We might also need to go negative against Cook.

It was clear that Leavitt wasn’t pleased with the prospect of running a negative campaign. Eddie suggested we break for an hour and clear our heads. He said Mike and his wife, Jackie, needed to think hard about the recommended strategy because the decision could be the difference between winning and losing.

Mike and Jackie went for a walk around the farming community of Loa. When they came back, Mike simply said he wasn’t going to run a negative campaign, even if it meant losing the election. He said it wasn’t who he was as a politician or a person.

To his credit, Eddie said, OK, let’s get back to work and plan a positive primary campaign. We did, and the rest is history.

LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com.

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