Elliott Curson was still a Philadelphia young advertising wunderkind when
Ronald Reagan's 1980 primary campaign against the Republican power
brokers and George H. W. Bush was sinking like, well, like John McCain's
relationship with talk radio.
Curson was called in to right the ship by creating a new strategy and
media campaign. Short on time and shorter on money, he crafted a campaign
that quickly turned the election around. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, former
dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of
Pennsylvania wrote in her book Packaging the Presidency, "For Reagan,
Curson was a gift from the gods."
Curson feels that today McCain is dealing with a number of the same
problems Reagan did.
"Reagan was dealing with negative issues concerning his age," said
Curson. "We sensed it was best to ignore it and not try to show him as a
young man jogging through the woods, trying to prove something he wasn't,
but instead show the voter who and what he was. We didn't hide him behind
smoke screens. We put him straight in front of the camera and had him
talk to Americans about the issues."
And obviously, America listened.
What would Curson advise McCain to handle what is a bigger obstacle than
opponents named Obama or Clinton? That obstacle being the discomfort
Conservatives feel with McCain.
"When Ronald Reagan ran in '80, moderates weren't with us at first," says
Curson. "But we knew if we stood strong, the public would come on board.
Waffling is what's hurting McCain. He's got to be strong and stay on the
issues. Conservatives will come along. Reagan never pandered. People -
Conservative people - admire strength. You have to stand up for what you
But there's a difference here. Reagan was being painted as an actor and
far-right winger. The complaint from conservatives is that McCain isn't
"The strategy isn't all that dissimilar," says Curson. "The major states
in the Republican party at the time were controlled by people who fell in
line with George H. W. Bush and Senator Howard Baker. Bush's campaign was
similar to Hillary Clinton's. Bush's slogan was, 'A president we don't
have to train.' Our strategy wasn't to confront Bush, but to present what
he believed a leader should do."
One of the commercials Curson developed started with a voiceover saying,
"Ronald Reagan believes that when you tax something you get less of it.
We're taxing work, savings and investments like never before. As a result
we have less work, less savings and less investment." Then Reagan appears
and says, "I didn't always agree with President Kennedy, but when his 30%
tax cut became law, the economy did so well that every group in the
country came out ahead. If I become president, we're going to try that
"We got his tax cut in, but we also brought up his connection to Kennedy,
hardly a right-winger. It made him more appealing to moderates."
Curson is a strong believer in having candidates appear in their
commercials telling the people who they are and what they believe in.
"Today, Republican campaign consultants aren't on the same page with the
average Republican, let alone the average American. McCain should make
that a theme. That he knows what America needs and he'll be a leader, not
"People like to be heard, and for the past seven years there's been a
feeling that the American people weren't being listened to by this White
House. Reagan loved talking to people, and he always gave the impression
what he heard was taken into consideration during his decision making
process. McCain needs to say more than 'I approve this message' in his
commercials. He has to speak his mind on the issues, but he's has to do
it without scaring the base he needs to vote for him. He's got to speak
all Americans, including Conservatives, but without pandering. Americans
know how to spot a hustle when they see one."
What would be the perfect commercial that Curson would create for McCain
"I know exactly what that would be," says Curson, with the twinkle of a
legendary virtuoso wanting to get back into the opera. "But that's going
to cost McCain a little more than I charged Reagan."