From The Folks Who Brought You Harry And Louise...

When Ben Goddard opened his first advertising shop in 1969, he was a gentle peacenik whose beat-up Rambler sported an antiwar bumper sticker. Not exactly the type of guy you would expect to wind up planning how to hype Newt Gingrich's conservative Contract With America.

But today, Goddard, 52, and partner Richard Claussen, 41, are political hired guns with a knack for finding the bull's-eye. You've probably seen their work: They're the folks who came up with the "Harry and Louise" TV ads last year that were funded by the insurance industry. The spots, which featured a couple fretting that they might have to switch doctors under President Clinton's proposed health plan, helped kill off health-care reform.

Now, the duo are readying a series of new spots on behalf of business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. This time, they're pushing a key feature of the Contract With America: the so-called Common Sense Legal Reform that proposes to do away with frivolous lawsuits.

VISCERAL MESSAGE. Thanks largely to the success of the Harry and Louise campaign, the market for advocacy ads is booming. And Goddard and Claussen are among the most sought-after guns-for-hire. In the past six months, they say, their outfit, Goddard Claussen/First Tuesday, based in Malibu, Calif., has grown by 50%.

The firm's work doesn't come cheap: First Tuesday charged $60,000 to produce the 30-second tort-reform spot, and it expects to bill some $20,000 more on a monthly basis to run a "grassroots" public-relations campaign on the issue. In addition, First Tuesday gets a 15% commission for placing the ads.

Goddard and Claussen's forte, honed during years of California ballot-initiative fights, is boiling down complex issues to a message so visceral that it inspires viewers to gripe to their elected officials out of fear or rage. "We can create from whole cloth a grassroots lobbying effort," says Goddard. The $17 million Harry and Louise campaign, for instance, generated 250,000 calls and letters to Congress.

Ironically, neither Goddard nor Claussen is a Republican. Goddard got into national politics working on Jimmy Carter's campaign in 1975 and later produced TV spots for Bruce Babbitt and Jesse Jackson.

In 1991, he teamed up with Claussen, who already had built a successful lobbying practice serving insurance companies, real estate developers, and nuclear-power utilities. Goddard remains a Democrat and Claussen now calls himself an independent.

That won't stop the duo from coming up with gut-wrenching ads to promote Newt's Contract. So far, they've done one tort-reform spot, featuring a field of Little League players who, one by one, vanish in mid-play as a narrator explains that liability insurance costs their teams more than "bats, balls, and uniforms." But Goddard and Claussen expect eventually to create about three-quarters of the legal-reform campaign, budgeted at as much as $15 million. Other possible themes: paramedics who want to focus on "saving lives" without fear of being sued and the owner of a small shop who is afraid of frivolous suits.

To help ensure that the House would pass tort reform, business groups spent $2 million airing reform ads in Washington in March. But the big bucks really will start flowing on about Apr. 10, when senators head home for spring recess. The commercials will run on CNN, CNBC, Court TV, and The Rush Limbaugh Show, as well as on local stations. Claussen is mapping his media buys to target potential swing-vote senators, possibly including John H. Glenn (D-Ohio) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). Before long, getting "Harry and Louised" may become a regular Washington occurrence.