A radio commercial made for Republican U.S. Senate nominee Ed Zschau says that in 1981 Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston voted against a bill permitting taxpayers to index their income while voting for a tax change favoring members of Congress.
"After turning his back on us, Alan Cranston helped himself and his Senate buddies to a fat little tax break," the ad's narrator says, referring to a law permitting senators and representatives to write off more of their personal expenses.
Zschau's advisers loved the commercial, but Zschau told them to do it over because the presentation was "too snide."
He reacted the same way when the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee offered him a TV commercial featuring a very unflattering photograph of the 72-year-old Cranston.
"I thought it was really in poor taste, I wouldn't use it," the 46-year-old Zschau said later.
To the dismay of some of his advisers, Zschau contends that he can take the Senate seat away from Cranston without resorting to tactics that are commonplace in political campaigns.
"I don't have to mischaracterize my opponent's record or engage in personal attacks to win this race--that's not me," Zschau said in a recent interview.
Careful to protect his image as a self-effacing newcomer to politics, Zschau often appears to be on the attack only to have second thoughts and step back.
The other day he implied in a speech to the World Affairs Council that Cranston was an "apologist" for the Soviet Union.
Zschau's advisers thought it was a fair charge since Cranston, a longtime supporter of the nuclear arms freeze, has often urged restraint when some of America's leaders were assailing the Soviets.
But when a reporter asked Zschau after the speech if he really thought Cranston was an "apologist," the candidate thought a minute and said, "I retract it. That may be too strong. I can only describe the votes and the positions he's taken, and apologist is the wrong kind of word."
Zschau also implied in the speech that Cranston tries to placate American workers with protectionist legislation rather than appealing to their "pride" and urging them to stand up to foreign competition.
Again, Zschau's advisers thought this was a legitimate attack on Cranston, who has voted for some protectionist bills.
But when a reporter asked Zschau to confirm that this was the comparison he was trying to make, he replied: "Well, to be fair, Sen. Cranston has a mixed record on this. He voted against the (protectionist) textile quota bill. So his record is not all one way."
Zschau's advisers aren't the only ones who wonder if this kind of high-road approach will be enough to unseat Cranston, a three-term incumbent with a respectable job approval rating in opinion polls.
When Zschau gave a speech recently to a Sacramento civic group, he dwelt on his promise to offer leadership in cutting the budget deficit. His strongest attack on Cranston was to call him a representative of "the old politics, in which you demonstrate your commitment to someone by showing how much money you can spend on them."
This wasn't tough enough for one member of the audience, who said to Zschau: "From what I have seen, you aren't very aggressive. This campaign is against a tough incumbent. When can we expect you to really open fire?"
Zschau replied: "Well, I think that's a fair assessment, but . . . voters want to know, 'What are you going to do in the United States Senate? Don't just tell me about all the bad things about your opponent.' So if you are looking for viciousness and negativism, then you're going to be disappointed."
Zschau's strongest attack on Cranston so far is a new TV commercial listing several Cranston votes that Zschau says impaired America's ability to combat terrorism. He consistently refuses in interviews to criticize Cranston personally.
Cranston, meanwhile, has unleashed a barrage of negative television ads and attacks Zschau personally in speeches, saying he "lacks a set of dearly held values and convictions."
The senator also isn't bashful about giving misleading interpretations of the two-term congressman's voting record.
For example, Cranston recently ridiculed Zschau, a former professor, for voting against the Emergency Math and Science Education Act of 1984. What Cranston didn't tell his audience was that Zschau originally opposed the act because it failed to put a cap on spending in the second year of the program. When that was corrected, the fiscally conservative Zschau supported the act.
In an effort to create doubts among moderate Republicans about Zschau, Cranston charges that Zschau's "record on abortion was 100% pro-choice in 1983 and 1984 but was 50% anti-choice in 1985." In fact, Zschau has never wavered in his pro-choice position but got the anti-choice rating in 1985 because he opposed the use of U.N. funds to pay for abortions in China.
Linked to Helms, Falwell
In another effort to reach moderates, the senator aired a commercial that attempts to link Zschau with Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and the Rev. Jerry Falwell on the issue of South Africa.
Cranston insists that the ad is fair because Zschau, like Helms and Falwell, has not joined Cranston in calling for total divestiture of U.S. interests in South Africa.
What Cranston fails to note is that while Helms and Falwell support the South African government and oppose all sanctions, Zschau has been very critical of the government and supports the sanctions invoked by President Reagan.