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The True Character of a Spin Doctor?

Republican media whiz Donald Sipple has crafted campaigns for Bob Dole, George Bush and his son George W., and Pete Wilson. But do Sipple's attack ads mirror a hidden past, that of an obsessive, hot-tempered man who beat two former wives?

Regina Sipple wasn't going to lose her boy, not if she could help it. She hadn't returned to Missouri, to a small courthouse in rural Callaway County, in the middle of a steamy July, just to hand over her son to the father who, she claimed, used to forget the child's birthday. She didn't think he cared about the boy. Rather, she would say later, he just wanted to hurt her, like he used to hurt her.

Regina guessed that her ex-husband, Donald Sipple, one of the Republican Party's most successful political consultants, would do everything in his considerable power to portray her as a bad mother who didn't deserve custody of their son. In politics, Sipple was a master of manipulation -- that's why Republican senators and governors and presidential candidates had paid him millions. Sipple's skill at creating emotional and persuasive political advertisements had landed him jobs with some of the GOP's top figures, including Bob Dole, George Bush, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, and California Gov. Pete Wilson. Regina, by comparison, was a single mom struggling to raise a son -- 13 years, she and Evan had been alone together. Without a lot of money, without a lot of help -- just each other. Evan didn't even want to live with his father. He wanted to stay with his mother, in California, where he played football and tooled around with computers. But in Regina's experience, her ex-husband didn't hesitate to use the skills of manipulation in his private life as well as his public one, and she worried.

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So Regina was prepared to take a step she had always avoided. She was going to testify in court that during their marriage, Don had repeatedly beaten her, turning their time together into matrimonial terror. Afraid of her ex-husband's power, Regina had never before gone public with that accusation. Now Don was forcing her to.

It encouraged her that she wasn't alone in charging Don Sipple with monstrous behavior: His second ex-wife, Deborah Steelman, was also going to testify that Sipple had beaten her. And Steelman wasn't a little fish like Regina. She was one of the most respected women in the nation's capital, a prominent Washington lawyer who had worked for Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Why would Steelman, who had so much to lose and nothing to gain, say that Don had beaten her if it weren't true?

The trial of Sipple v. Sipple took place five years ago, in 1992. It passed without public notice. But Sipple's decision to initiate a custody fight set off shock waves in the lives of its participants from which they are still recovering. And it has had public implications: While Sipple was running the media strategy for Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign, at least four other members of that campaign knew of the allegations in Sipple's past, and, perhaps reluctant to rock Dole's leaky boat, did nothing about them. Their knowledge hasn't hurt Sipple. This fall, he is reportedly handling the media for Vito Fossella, the Republican running to replace Staten Island congresswoman-turned-talking-head Susan Molinari in the only congressional race this year. Heading into the 1998 elections, Sipple's already at work on the media campaign for Susan Golding, a U.S. Senate candidate in California, and is expected to run the campaigns of Missouri Sen. Kit Bond and Texas Gov. Bush.

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