February 15, 2000


Years Ago, Bush Adviser in Texas Helped Draft a Poll Using Disputed Method

WASHINGTON, Feb. 14 -- Gov. George W. Bush of Texas has expressed outrage at the accusation from the McCain camp that his campaign is involved in the controversial political technique in which workers give the impression of taking a public opinion poll while actually spreading negative charges about a candidate.

Mr. Bush has threatened to fire any campaign staff member involved with such "push polls."

In early 1996 in Texas, however, Karl Rove, Governor Bush's longtime political adviser and the chief architect of his presidential campaign, helped draft a push poll, financed by the tobacco industry, that was used in an effort to thwart a planned state lawsuit against the tobacco companies.

At the time, Mr. Rove was both a top consultant to Mr. Bush and a $3,000-a-month consultant to Phillip Morris.

The target of the 1996 poll was the attorney general of Texas, Dan Morales, a Democrat. At the time, Mr. Morales was preparing to file a lawsuit against several tobacco companies to seek reimbursement for billions of dollars that the state had spent on smoking-related illnesses.

In an interview today, Mr. Morales, who is no longer attorney general, said the pollsters had used negative and false information about his record in an effort to sway the respondents' answers.

A copy of the survey shows that it included more than a dozen negative statements about Mr. Morales's record as attorney general.

Mr. Morales said that the results, which showed that most Texans rated a tobacco lawsuit as a low priority, were shared with him by a Phillip Morris lobbyist.

"They tried to use the results of this poll to intimidate me into not filing the lawsuit," Mr. Morales said. "I was not surprised by the effort. But it was somewhat disconcerting to see the dual role that Mr. Rove was playing, as chief Phillip Morris lobbyist for Texas while he was the chief political consultant to the governor of Texas."

Two months after the poll was released, Mr. Morales filed the lawsuit against the tobacco companies. And in January 1998, the industry settled the lawsuit with the State of Texas for $15 billion, a figure that was eventually increased to $17.3 billion, including $2.3 billion in fees to the five lawyers and firms for the plaintiffs. Governor Bush took no position on the merits of the lawsuit, but after the settlement he called the fees awarded to plaintiffs' lawyers "outrageous."

Mr. Rove was unavailable for comment today.

But Ari Fleischer, a spokesman for the Bush campaign, said: "Mr. Rove's role was only to review a fifth draft of a survey that had been written by someone else and to suggest that a copy be shared with the attorney general. That was the extent of his role."

In a deposition conducted in 1997, Mr. Rove acknowledged that he had offered suggestions about the poll's questions and demographics and recommended that a copy of the results be provided to Mr. Morales.

Mr. Rove was a consultant to Phillip Morris from 1991 to December 1996. He said he ended his representation of Phillip Morris in December 1996, in part to avoid bringing controversy to Governor Bush. But from January 1995 to December 1996, the two jobs overlapped.

The issue of push polling erupted in South Carolina last week as a bitterly divisive issue between the McCain and Bush campaigns. It began when a distraught woman told Senator McCain that her teenage son had taken a call from a pollster who portrayed Mr. McCain as "cheat and a liar and a fraud."

Mr. Bush angrily denied that the call came from one of his pollsters and has released the scripts used by some of them.

Some Bush operatives have privately pointed fingers at Mr. McCain's advisers for past client work that involved push polls.

In his deposition, Mr. Rove said that after the poll was conducted, he delivered a copy to Joe Allbaugh, an executive assistant to Governor Bush and now his campaign chairman.

Mr. Rove said that Mr. Allbaugh did not give the document to Governor Bush, but instead "put it in the trash."

The tobacco push poll was conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, an Alexandria, Va., firm. Neil Newhouse, a partner at the firm, did not return calls today.

Mr. Morales said that in the push-poll that Mr. Rove helped draft his positions on an array of issues, including gun control and affirmative action, were mischaracterized. And he said respondents had been influenced by the false information. "They said conservative groups rated me as a left-leaning, liberal Democrat, which is simply not true," Mr. Morales said.

Public Opinion Strategies summarized its findings this way: "The lawsuit is opposed by a strong majority of Texans, and they express skepticism over the motives of the attorney general on the issue. Dan Morales is in good shape politically, but he has some areas of softness, and others of outright vulnerability. The lack of support for the lawsuit -- especially since it is being filed by private lawyers who stand to gain after contributing to the attorney general's campaign -- is a clear vulnerability for the attorney general."

Mr. Morales did not seek re-election in 1998.

Public Opinion Strategies has a new client in the 2000 political race: John McCain. Howard Opinsky, a spokesman for Mr. McCain, said the firm was not conducting push polls for his campaign.

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company