WASHINGTON — A team of American political strategists who helped Gov. Pete Wilson with his abortive presidential bid earlier this year said this week that they served as Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's secret campaign weapon in his comeback win over a Communist challenger.
And while some Muscovites are debating whether the Americans saved Yeltsin's job or merely provided one voice among many working to revive the Russian president's political chances, the consultants have now emerged to give interviews about how they quietly peddled advice to Yeltsin's 36-year-old daughter and key advisor, Tatyana Dyachenko.
"I don't have candidates generally who are as responsive as Boris Yeltsin," said George Gorton, who worked for Wilson in 1994 and later ran Wilson's abortive bid for the GOP nomination. "Certainly not Pete Wilson."
Hired in February through a San Francisco firm with connections in Moscow, Gorton said that the team members never met Yeltsin. Instead, they sent their detailed, unsigned memos to his daughter. "We were told that we were formally retained as advisors to the Yeltsin family."
Although the Americans spoke no Russian and worked through translators, they began secretly laying out an American-style campaign to counter the public sentiment running against Yeltsin.
When they started, Yeltsin's approval rating was about 6%, and, as they told Time magazine, Josef Stalin had a higher positive rating in their polls. Yet last week, Yeltsin defeated Communist candidate Gennady A. Zyuganov by more than 13 percentage points.
In an interview here Monday, Gorton said that he and his colleagues quickly realized that Yeltsin did not trust his campaign advisors to help him win reelection and placed more value on the advice of his daughter.
"However, she didn't know anything," Gorton said. "She's very bright, very articulate, very strong-willed, but she didn't have the first idea about campaigning, not even the ideas that a child here would have."
The Americans were brought in by a circuitous route. Felix Braynin of San Francisco, a Soviet immigrant who is now a wealthy consultant to American businesses working in Russia, began helping the Yeltsin campaign last year.
After he asked about American advisors who could help, San Francisco lawyer Fred Lowell suggested Gorton and Joe Shumate, an expert on political polling, and Richard Dresner, a political strategist who has helped not only Wilson but President Clinton in his earlier campaigns for governor of Arkansas.
The Americans will not say how much they were paid, although their fee has been estimated at about $250,000. They were told that their involvement had to be treated like a state secret because of fears that the Communists would use their presence to try to foment anti-Western sentiment among voters.
The group worked in hiding on the 11th floor of the Kremlin's lavish President Hotel in downtown Moscow. The hotel can be entered by invitation only. After six weeks inside, Gorton and his colleagues began to sneak out for occasional meals in the city or to go into the countryside to help conduct some of Russia's first focus groups.
"What you have to understand is that this hotel is a minimum-security prison masquerading as a five-star hotel," said Steven Moore, a 28-year-old political consultant who joined in the effort.
The team is still secretive about some of its Russian business. Dresner prefers to stay mum about whether he was in touch with his old colleague Dick Morris, now Clinton's chief campaign advisor. Citing certain "agreements" that they refuse to explain, Dresner and Gorton acknowledge only that information about their work was made available to the Clinton White House.
The American advisors also worked with the Russians on such details as replacing a poster of a scowling Yeltsin with a smiling version. They suggested that some negative ads needed to be more subtle--persuading the Yeltsin campaign to pull one poster that showed a hammer and sickle made of cockroaches.
Some of Yeltsin's Russian advisors felt strongly that he could not criticize communism, especially since Communists had done so well in parliamentary elections in December and their leader, Zyuganov, was doing so well in the polls.
But Yeltsin followed the American advice until the last few days before the first round of balloting June 16, Gorton said. At that point, however, the Russian advisors canceled the anti-Communist ads. About the same time, Dresner said, Yeltsin's campaign polls showed a flattening out.
But mostly, Yeltsin took their advice, the Americans said.
Perhaps the most troubling moment in their adventure came when it appeared some of Yeltsin's advisors in the Kremlin were trying to convince him to cancel the election. At one point, the Americans believed that a Moscow pollster was handing out false numbers showing that Yeltsin could not possibly win.
"It came to the point that we wrote a memo I would never have written anywhere else. We said: 'This campaign is in the bank. It's over. It's finished,' " Gorton said, meaning that Yeltsin had won.