When Howard Jacobs, a 44-year-old physician from Randallstown, walked into a room with 11 other people in Towson not long ago, he didn't realize that they were about to become a national media sensation.
The Baltimore County residents spent several hours picking apart the top two Democratic presidential candidates in a focus group organized by a pollster in a spare first-floor office in downtown Towson. Watching them on the other side of a one-way mirror were 10 prominent Washington journalists who later fired off thousands of words that turned the group into the Towson 12, oracles of American public opinion.
"When I heard Rush Limbaugh talking about us, I just about drove off the road," Jacobs recalled.
The middle-class Democrats delivered a verdict that rattled the vice president's campaign: Al Gore was a crashing bore.
Asked by a group of reporters and editors about the tepid reaction he stirred in the Towson group, Gore answered, "I don't know how to react to that, and I don't know who they are or what they saw or whether they were [asked] leading questions."
Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart offered the 12 participants $50 along with the promise of cold cuts and sodas to draw them to a two-hour evening session. They sat around a rectangular table as Hart asked questions, showed videotaped clips of the two candidates and pushed the group to render judgments and explain how they reached them.
The 12 included several homemakers, a photographer, a car saleswoman, an insurance representative, an artist, a social worker, a paralegal and a government analyst, among other occupations. The gathering was split evenly among men and women, and included one black.
Scribbling away were longtime Washington journalists. The session became fodder for articles that appeared in newspapers all over the country, including the Wall Street Journal, Newsday, the Deseret News in Salt Lake City and the Los Angeles Times. The Baltimore County group's views were also noted widely on television programs, from the genteel discourse of PBS to the frenzied free-for-all of the Fox News Channel.
Conservative talk show host Limbaugh noted the reaction to Gore glowingly last week. "Gore absolutely collapsed," Limbaugh crowed, calling the group "the Towson 12."
"It sounds like we're a bunch of Communists getting together," said Judi Dickman, a 44-year-old social worker from Pikesville who was one of the 12. "I think we didn't realize how this thing was going to play." Dickman and others started to receive calls from friends and relatives reveling in the group's sudden celebrity.
At the outset of the evening, the participants were roughly evenly split among Gore supporters, backers of former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley and those who were undecided. By the end of the night, all leaned toward Bradley.
Such moderated discussions, a favorite tool of marketing consultants, are a decidedly unscientific way to gauge public opinion. The Towson gathering was far too small to be adequately representative of Baltimore County Democrats, let alone the national electorate.
Most polls involve hundreds of telephone interviews, each of which lasts about 15 minutes and involves responses to multiple-choice questions about candidates or politicians. Careful use of a focus group, advocates say, can help bring out emotions underlying the more limited opinions registered in broader polls.
"It gets at how people feel much better than you could doing a survey," said David Beattie, a Democratic consultant based in Florida.
But their use can be controversial. "A focus group is like a Rorschach test: [Observers] will take away the opinions they already had," said Philip E. Meyer, a professor at the University of North Carolina who used to run public opinion surveys for the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain.
"Everybody knows you can't generalize about focus groups, and then everybody does it," said Meyer.
Coverage of the Towson 12's responses, he said, "sounds like it's totally out of hand."
Hart, who invited the 10 reporters to observe the discussion, said he did not expect it to be so heavily aired. "I must say I was surprised by how much attention it drew," he said.
Several members of the focus group said their newfound fame is built on shaky foundations.
"I would rather talk about Pepsi or Coke, in a sense, because at least there's some hype there," said Jerry Schunick, a 61-year-old photographer from Pikesville. "I don't think most people, every day of their lives, are thinking about politics."
Noel Sills, a 24-year-old Navy veteran from Middle River who sells cars, said the event seemed tilted against Gore, even as she became more impressed with Bradley. "Bill Bradley's speech was not as cut up and jumbled as Vice President Gore's," she said. "During one of [Gore's clips], they showed somebody in the audience yawning. I thought that was kind of strange."
Sills said, "I could definitely tell what it was about. Bradley probably paid for it."
Hart, a Democrat who does extensive surveys for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, said he is not working for either the Gore or Bradley campaign or for any arm of the Democratic Party.
Hart said he staged the Towson session at his own expense to allow reporters "to be able to see real voters go through the decision-making process. I hope it broadens their knowledge."
There are other reasons for Hart to have done it, suggested Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, who watched the Towson session: "He gets a nice bounce out of it. He gets his name in the papers and can tell his clients about the results."
The journalist said he was happy to take part because of the insights he gained, which outstripped those he would glean from interviews with people on the street.
"Journalistically, the question was how far do you take that," McManus said. "Peter was very careful after the session. He said, 'Don't read too much into this.' "
Many of the pundits nonetheless presented the event as convincing evidence of the vice president's political liabilities.
"A clear majority believed the former New Jersey senator would be the stronger general election nominee," wrote Al Hunt, columnist for the Wall Street Journal.
On PBS' "Washington Week in Review," Gloria Borger of U.S. News & World Report said she was shocked at how viscerally the Baltimore County voters reacted against Gore. "What surprised me was the extent to which they were actually open to somebody like Bill Bradley and the extent to which they were willing to criticize Al Gore," Borger said.
"The night began poorly for Al Gore and got worse," wrote Calvin Woodward of the Associated Press.
However badly things may have appeared for Gore, several participants said they were not sure their remarks should be used to assess anything seriously.
"Toward the end of the evening, I think a lot of us were so exhausted that I don't even know that we believed what we said," Dickman said. "I think we should be more serious about the election before making a decision."