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GOP's ad wizard faces 'demons,' supports 'nerds'

By Jessica Yellin and Kevin Bohn, CNN
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The GOP's most hated and loved ad guru
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Fred Davis has produced some of Republicans' most memorable TV spots
  • His work includes "I am not a witch" and "demon sheep" commercials
  • He says he tries to share the things about clients that he likes
  • "I get criticized every day of my life for something," Davis says

Are nasty political attacks what it takes to win an election? A "Dirty Politics" special investigation on "AC360°" tonight at 10 ET on CNN.

Los Angeles, California (CNN) -- In one spot, a moderate Republican congressman is portrayed as a demon sheep -- a threat to the Republican flock. In another ad, a candidate for governor declares to viewers, "I'm one tough nerd!" And, of course, there's the now-infamous "I am not a witch" spot.

These are among the most talked-about campaign commercials and videos of this political season. And they're all brought to you by Republican producer Fred Davis.

His secret to a winning ad? "To me, it has to stand out. And you have to talk about it," an excited Davis said. "It has to be different."

Standing out seems to be a way of life for the ad man. Take his office: It's a three-story house in the Hollywood Hills, where he is surrounded by Los Angeles liberals. His place is filled with odd artifacts, including a two-headed calf perched next to a trove of awards.

Davis did Sen. John McCain's media work in the 2008 campaign, which included the Republican National Convention. Connect the dots, and, yes, he helped introduce Sarah Palin to the nation.

This year, he helped McCain pull through a hard-fought primary with a commercial that featured the candidate walking along the U.S.-Mexican border, telling a sheriff it's time to "build the danged fence."

Davis also produced the memorable Ben Quayle spot in which the former vice president's baby-faced son -- who is running for Congress in Arizona -- looked into the camera and declared, "Barack Obama is the worst president in history."

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But the ad that will probably be talked about for years to come is the first spot for Delaware senatorial candidate Christine O'Donnell. The relative unknown hadn't aired a single commercial and was being parodied on late-night TV for saying, years ago, that she dabbled in witchcraft.

Davis decided that rather than ignore the controversy, O'Donnell should take on the comics and critics directly. In her first commercial out of the gate, O'Donnell announced to viewers, "I am not a witch. I am you."

"My goal was to give people the same impression of Christine O'Donnell that I had the first second that I met her," Davis said. "She didn't sound crazy. She didn't sound like a witch. She didn't sound like any of those things, and I wanted the rest of the world to hear that as well."

The commercial itself was parodied on late-night television. O'Donnell recently said she regretted revisiting the issue because it renewed the controversy. Though these days, critics are no longer calling O'Donnell a witch.

Davis does not shy away from controversy.

He thinks he'll be best known for a video that went viral after it aired during the California Republican convention. The video, for GOP senatorial candidate Carly Fiorina, featured her Republican opponent -- a moderate -- as a wolf dressed as a sheep, with devilish, glowing red eyes. Playing to primary voters' desire for ideological purity, the spot declared Tom Campbell a RINO: Republican in Name Only. Campbell lost that primary.

"Demon sheep. You wouldn't be here if it weren't for the demon sheep. I am quite certain. Demon sheep was a nothing. I never in a million years would have guessed it would [have] happened," Davis recounted.

He says he got the idea when Fiorina's campaign manager said he wanted to convince voters that Tom Campbell wasn't the fiscal expert he claimed to be. Davis recalled, "I'm thinking sheep. And I'm thinking, what is it? Wolf in sheep's clothing! And one thing led to another, and it was a very cheap little video. I didn't think five people would ever see it. And millions have seen it, and the rest of my life I will be introduced as the demon sheep guy."

Like many of his ideas, he says, that one just came to him. He adds that often, his best ideas come in the middle of the night.

"I sleep with a legal pad every night. I am very exciting," he deadpanned.

Davis, who also makes non-political ads, is not getting much sleep in the final days of the campaigns. His relatively small company of about a dozen full-time staff has offices in Los Angeles; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Washington.

He is working simultaneously this cycle for about eight campaigns and is helping on others through the Republican Governors Association and a couple of third-party groups.

Davis strives to make a personal connection between the candidate and the audience.

"You know what I try to do? I try to really like my clients. And if I really like them, I try to think. You mentioned Carly [Fiorina]. What is it I like about Carly? Well, she's fun, she's positive, she's up, she's chipper, and so I try to impart those feelings about her," he said. "The pieces I like, I figured, if I come to like them, I can help somebody else find those same characteristics, and maybe they'll like them too. So it's not always 100 percent issue-based."

He knows his work doesn't sit well with all viewers.

"I get criticized every day of my life for something," he said with a laugh.

Does he ever worry that his work goes too far outside the box? "That does cross my mind. Most people must think that it does not. And that I'll do anything to get attention."

In his analysis, America is generally divided into two halves, or boxes: the Republican half and the "dim half."

"If you do something really well for this box, this box is going to hate it. If you do something really well for this box, this box is going to hate it," he summarized. "So I expect, anticipate and enjoy and look forward to enormous criticism over something like demon sheep, because that helps me know that it's probably doing its job with this box where I am trying to do it. If I do something and the wrong box is energized, then that's a problem. And I have to fix it."

But that hasn't happened yet. "No, not yet. Maybe today."

 
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