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Mayor's Race Takes Low Road Down Stretch : Politics: Two weeks before the election, images overwhelm issues in bids for votes. : NEWS ANALYSIS


It is the campaign equivalent of television's sweeps: that crucial period in which sleaze and sensationalism overwhelm a medium not noted for taking the high road. Now, with two weeks left before Election Day, that time has come in the Los Angeles mayor's race.

Bums, prostitutes and boarded-up buildings on one side. Speeding limousines, racially exclusive country clubs and laid-off workers on the other. These are the competing images of a campaign that seeks to take the 1993 mayor's race to the lowest common denominator.

So nasty have things become that candidate Richard Riordan, addressing a Jewish audience on Monday, sought to blame his rival, Michael Woo, for the swastikas that defaced Riordan signs over the weekend. "It is the logical result of the kind of campaign he has been waging," said Riordan--a charge Woo vehemently denied.

Even before this latest flap, the candidates were substituting shock value for substance in their efforts to engage an electorate that has grown increasingly apathetic toward local political races.

A top aide to Woo maintained that negative advertising is necessary in races like this one, where the electronic media have tended to ignore the serious side of the campaign.

"To the degree that there is less and less media interest in campaigning, the more exaggerated, loud and outrageous you have to be to get through to people," said the aide, who asked not to be named.

"I liken this to set design in the theater. The closer you get, the more you realize the sets are outsized and the colors are wildly overdone. But it's the people way back in the balcony you are trying to reach. And to them it looks realistic.

"It's the same way in a political campaign: To get to the people who haven't paid much attention, you have to exaggerate."

The personal attacks have camouflaged, to some extent, the candidates' similarities on several issues. Both emphasize the need to hire more police, make the City Hall bureaucracy more friendly to business and give parents and teachers more control over the educational system (although Riordan favors splitting up the Los Angeles Unified School District while Woo would keep it intact.)

At a time when both campaigns need to draw distinctions and offer voters clear choices, the temptation to resort to caricature is irresistible.

Woo labors to make Riordan look--in the words of one campaign aide--"like Gordon Gekko," the rapacious villain of "Wall Street," Oliver Stone's movie about 1980s greed. And Riordan seeks to portray Woo as a Little Lord Fauntleroy of the left, a political dilettante who can't deliver.

Riordan struck first. With lurid images of vagrants and prostitutes, he keeps hammering away at the rising crime and fleeing businesses in Hollywood during the time Woo represented the community.

To blunt Riordan's message--which polls showed was having an effect--Woo acted to shift the spotlight off his record. In a series of highly personal ads and a new mailer, he has sought to make his opponent unpalatable to a Democratic majority that has shown some affinity for Riordan's law-and-order rhetoric.

Woo is trying to tie Riordan to right-wing Christian fundamentalists, to junk bond impresario Michael Milken and to business practices that cost thousands of people their jobs. Woo highlights Riordan's former membership in a country club with no black or Jewish members and makes much of a 5-year-old comment--Riordan says it was a bad joke--about "taking lessons in learning how to wave to the poor people."

Campaign officials on both sides say they are merely shining a light on the less flattering aspects of their opponent's record.

"Certainly it is up to us to point out where Riordan's record is at odds with his public posture," said Garry South, Woo's director of communications.

Jadine Nielsen, Riordan's campaign manager, countered that "Woo's attacks are personal . . . attempts at character assassination." She contended that the negative ads about Woo are aimed solely at his public record.

Experts say the strategies of both candidates could backfire, ultimately repelling voters and reducing turnout on Election Day.

"I think the Los Angeles electorate (is) very cynical about negative advertising," said independent political consultant Bill Carrick. "I don't think it's nearly as effective here as people think it is. . . . I think the one thing they do is keep people home."

A more serious consequence of this kind of advertising, Carrick said, is that it could turn the public against the eventual winner, who will need all the good will he can muster to govern effectively in a city with many problems.

"If one of them gets elected because the other guy was a bum, it's not much of a mandate to govern the city. You'll have somebody elected mayor who's in there without an agenda or a platform to launch their mayoralty."

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