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Greg Stevens, 58; operative was behind Dukakis tank ad in '88

WASHINGTON — Greg Stevens, a Republican political and media strategist who might be best known for taking presidential candidate Michael Dukakis’s 1988 publicity appearance in a tank and using the image against him, died April 16 at his home in Yarmouth, Maine. He had brain cancer and was 58.

Before starting his Alexandria, Va.-based firm in 1993, Mr. Stevens had a long career as a political operative and GOP strategist who learned under Charles Black, Lee Atwater, and Roger Ailes. He spoke of Ailes, now chairman of Fox News, as his closest mentor in developing clear visual strategies.

When Ailes was hired in 1988 by the George H.W. Bush campaign, he assigned Mr. Stevens to highlight challenger Dukakis’s opposition to military programs.

Mr. Stevens later said he spent days in an editing room assembling footage showing Dukakis, a former Massachusetts governor, at a tank factory in Michigan. The result was a slow-motion ad depicting Dukakis looking ill-9suited for the role of commander in chief, wearing an ungainly helmet as he drove around in a tank.

Darrell West, a Brown University professor of political science and an authority on elections, said, ‘‘What was important about the Dukakis tank ad was using Dukakis’s own photo op against itself.’’

In dozens of other campaigns, Mr. Stevens was ‘‘good at using ads to find wedge issues, which divide people but create a lot of intensity and often make people willing to cast votes,’’ West said. ‘‘I’d associate him with the hardball school of politics. He believed in using politics to address tough issues.’’

Gregory Clark Stevens, a minister’s son, was born in Abington, Pa., on Nov.1, 1948, and was raised mostly in Turner, Maine. He was a 1971 education graduate of the University of Maine, where he was class president, and then spent five years as an aggressive legislative reporter for the now-9defunct News Tribune of Woodbridge, N.J.

In 1976, Thomas H. Kean, then a New Jersey assemblyman, became Gerald R. Ford’s presidential campaign manager in the state and hired Mr. Stevens as press secretary.

Mr. Stevens also did press work for Kean’s unsuccessful gubernatorial bid in 1977.

After further political work in Maine and Washington, Mr. Stevens was brought on as Kean’s communications director after Kean was elected governor in 1981 by a 1,700 vote margin.

Barbara Salmore, a retired dean at Fairleigh Dickinson University and a specialist in New Jersey politics, said that as Kean’s chief of staff, Mr. Stevens urged the governor to become more visible through television public service announcements and advertisements featuring celebrities such as Brooke Shields and Bill Cosby. The result was an overwhelming margin of victory for Kean in the 1985 election against his Democratic opponent.

In 1993, Mr. Stevens started what is now the consulting firm of Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm and soon had a large roster of clients. That year he helped then-representative George Allen, Republican of Virginia, in his successful gubernatorial bid. Mr. Stevens made parole a key issue in Allen’s campaign against Attorney General Mary Sue Terry.

Mr. Stevens and his associates attracted strong criticism at times for his methods. He was fired from GOP Senator John Warner’s reelection campaign in 1996 for doctoring an image of his Democratic opponent. The firm also came under fire for a 2006 television ad made for Senator Mike DeWine, Republican of Ohio, that digitally added billowing smoke to an image of the Twin Towers taken before the Sept.11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

His firm also made advertisements during the 2004 presidential race for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth veterans advocacy group. The group, whose members included many financial supporters of President Bush, raised doubts about Democratic challenger John Kerry’s valor as a Navy lieutenant patrolling the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War.

Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War held as prisoner of war, called the ads ‘‘dishonest and dishonorable.’’

Mr. Stevens, who had helped shape McCain’s image as a straight-talking reformer during the 2000 presidential election, said he had little to do with the Swift Boat advertisements because they were handled by a partner.

However, he told the New York Times, ‘‘Don’t those veterans have as much right to talk about Vietnam as John Kerry?’’

Mr. Stevens moved to Maine from Alexandria in 1999 but continued to commute to his office.

He leaves his wife of 33 years and three sons.

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