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Upbeat Messages Won't Do, Political Candidates Find : Campaigns: With public so frustrated and cynical, office seekers exploit lure of traditional values.

October 09, 1994|THOMAS B. ROSENSTIEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Not long ago, people trying to reelect Gov. Pete Wilson tested two versions of a TV commercial about immigration. One was a mostly positive spot about Wilson's goals. The other was mostly an attack on his opponent, Kathleen Brown.

Guess which one the test audience loved?

"They saw the negative spot and said . . . 'Oh, powerful.' It seemed more honest," said one of the campaign officials involved.

It is that kind of year.

In the war for hearts and minds on television in this strange and possibly pivotal political season, the public has become so frustrated and cynical that politicians who want to run positive messages find they don't work.

"People don't believe anything good about politicians, and they are ready to believe almost anything bad," said Republican media consultant Eddie Mahe.

From Philadelphia to Phoenix and Boston to San Francisco, "the percentage of negative advertising . . . is the highest it's ever been," Mahe said.

"It gets worse every year, but it's never been like this," agreed Democratic political consultant Jim Margolis.

The trend is significant on at least two levels:

Because the ads contain messages tested and honed by campaign professionals, they may well serve as a reflection of the electorate's mood. Poll after poll have found that voters are even more sour on politicians this year than in 1992--when incumbents were swept from office coast to coast.

The tone of the ads also means that the image most people have of candidates this year is a negative one, which raises disturbing questions about the likelihood that voters will regain confidence in their political leaders anytime soon.

A survey of dozens of ads and interviews with political professionals provide the following topography of the 1994 campaign:

* The star of most Republican advertising in federal races is President Clinton, and in these ads, the No. 1 reason for voting Republican seems to be to avoid sending more people to Washington who think like he does.

* Most Democrats don't mention their party, don't mention their President and instead run by comparing themselves to their Republican opponents, an approach that is personal rather than ideological--and also highly negative.

* Party identification doesn't mean much except in local races. Being a Republican incumbent is almost as scandalous as being a Democratic one.

* After Clinton, the No. 2 issue is crime--partly, say consultants, because the subtext is morality. Crime strikes people as being about right and wrong.

* Republicans still find welfare reform is an issue with great resonance among conservatives. Abortion and the death penalty, however, have faded as issues.

* While negative ads are on the rise, they are rarely straight-out attacks. Instead, they are usually "comparative," meaning they involve information about both candidates and contrast their positions.

For instance, the negative Wilson ad on immigration preferred by the test audience began with Wilson's position that illegal immigrants should not receive state benefits. "Kathleen Brown thinks differently," it said. "She supports continuing state services to illegals and says illegal immigration is not a cause of problems in California."

"There is no appeal to the straight attack," said Republican consultant Mike Murphy, whose clients include Gov. John Engler in Michigan and Virginia Senate candidate Oliver L. North.

Candidate research has found that three words above all evoke the most meaning for voters this year, said Murphy: "Washington," "new" and "liberal."

Most candidates around the country running for federal office suggest that they know what's wrong in Washington, that they possess something new and that the other guy is liberal--or, in the case of Democratic candidates, that they themselves are moderate, rather than liberal.

And what messages are working best for Democrats?

"Zero," Margolis said.

"I'm still looking," said another consultant. "But don't use my name."

After several seconds of rueful laughter, Democratic consultant Don Sweitzer answered, "None."

The best approach many Democrats have found is to suggest that the Republican opponent is simply unacceptable. "If you can make the race a choice between two individuals, then you have a shot to hang on," Sweitzer said.

One of the few Democratic campaign professionals who seems upbeat is Frank Greer, whose firm still expects to win about half of its races, all of them incumbents. Many of Greer's campaigns are geared to defining his Democratic clients as moderate and their Republican rivals as extreme.

In Florida, Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles is using testimonials from Republicans who favor abortion rights to depict opponent Jeb Bush as politically extreme and interested in intruding government into people's private lives because of his desire to ban abortion.

In Maryland, Democrat Parris Glendening is running for governor as a "mainstream moderate," depicting Republican Ellen Sauerbrey as an extremist because she opposed banning assault weapons.

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