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The Race for Campaign Wear

Correction Appended

Whether it’s Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) courting minority voters with “Hispanics for McCain” hats or Rep. Tom Allen (D) appealing to sensible Mainers with preppy golf shirts touting his Senate bid, merchandise can be a subtle but important piece of a campaign.

For a handful of merchandise companies headed by wannabe campaign warriors, it can also be a lucrative way to be politically involved.

“It’s a lot easier to do products for a campaign when you’re gung-ho about the guy,” said Brian Harlin, owner of GOP Shoppe.

Harlin is a staunch Republican who produced all the T-shirts, buttons and signs for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s (R) failed presidential campaign. An early Romney fan who volunteered for the campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire, Harlin has used his resources at GOP Shoppe to launch, a grass-roots Web site pushing Romney for vice president. The low-grade Web site, which is not affiliated with the former candidate’s campaign, sells T-shirts and bumper stickers splashed with Romney’s chiseled face.

[IMGCAP(1)]A University of Maryland graduate and Maryland native, Harlin is a political junkie who views his business as a way to help Republican candidates and attack Democrats. GOP Shoppe’s first product, launched in 1993, was a calendar counting down the days left in President Bill Clinton’s term.

“The Clinton years gave us plenty of material,” Harlin said. “The anti-Clinton stuff actually sold better than the positive Republican stuff.”

Becoming an official paraphernalia vendor for a campaign can be a campaign in itself.

Executives at Tigereye Design, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama’s official outfitter, were so inspired by the young Illinois Senator that they vied for his business even before his presidential campaign was officially launched. Wooing the Senator with all the passion of a contested election, sending samples and phone banking his office, Tigereye secured Obama’s business just days before he announced his bid in February 2007. The day after he announced his candidacy, Tigereye’s sales increased fourfold.

“We were shocked at how fast the orders came in,” said Steve Swallow, an Obama supporter and chief operating officer for Tigereye, which has outfitted Democratic campaigns for 30 years.

Tigereye has expanded from 30 employees to 120 since last year and will likely add more to keep up with orders. The company is maintaining Obama’s online store, which sells a $12 DVD of the candidate’s speeches, $10 lapel pins — though no American flags — and $50 fleece jackets, perfect for those chilly Iowa winters. Proceeds from the sales of merchandise on the Obama Web site are considered donations and go to the campaign’s war chest. The campaign did not return calls requesting information on sales and revenue.

Ironically, Tigereye’s Greenville, Ohio-based printing plant is in the heart of House Minority Leader John Boehner’s (R) district, but the location has not deterred the company’s client base. Other clients include Senate candidates Al Franken (D) in Minnesota (“fashions to match your passion,” according to Franken’s Web site) and Allen in Maine. In 2006, the company printed shirts, buttons and bumper stickers for every winning statewide Democratic candidate in Ohio, including now-Gov. Ted Strickland and now-Sen. Sherrod Brown.

“True or not, we take credit for that,” Swallow quipped.

The Buckeye State, a consistent battleground for campaigns, also fields a competitive market for merchandise companies. Cincinnati-based PC Signs was the official vendor to McCain’s presidential campaign until last month, outfitting at least 25,000 of the maverick’s supporters with windbreakers and hats emblazoned with the campaign’s logo. McCain’s camp switched to GOP Trunk, a cheaper vendor.

Appropriately named, PC Signs is a nonpartisan company. At the same time it was printing McCain materials, the company produced 25,000 signs for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) four days before the May 20 Kentucky primary. Owner Scott Scharfenberger, who is undecided about who to vote for in the White House election, dismissed any claims of T-shirt flip- flopping.

“I’ve got a family to feed. At this level, that doesn’t matter to a campaign,” he said. “They’re begging for money all the time. Trust me, the price means more to a lot of them.”

American-made T-shirts cost $1.75 more than foreign-made varieties, but candidates in both parties always go with the domestics, Scharfenberger said. PC Signs prompted a brief campaign crisis in February when it mistakenly sent a fleece marked “Made in Vietnam” to one of McCain’s sons. PC Signs had to issue an apology for the mishap, made more uncomfortable because of McCain’s storied history as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Like rival consulting firms watching for slipups, political T-shirt vendors considered the snafu a hot topic.

“It got some ink,” the GOP Shoppe’s Harlin said of his competitor. “It didn’t look very good.”

PC Signs and Tigereye Design are unionized companies that produce American-made products, a must for Democratic candidates. The host committee for the Democratic National Convention in Denver mandated that all merchandise sold be union-made. For Republicans, that status is less important.

As they run the printing presses and gear up for the general election, the companies are working to create memorable merchandise that will help their candidates, and — they hope — their bottom line.

“We’ll be rolling out a line of Franken-steins in the fall,” Tigereye’s Swallow said with a laugh, clearly taking a cue from the comedian turned candidate. “We like to have fun with our products.”

Correction: June 16, 2008

The article incorrectly reported the name of the official merchandise vendor for Arizona Sen. John McCain’s campaign. It is GOP Trunk.

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