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Dole TV Ads, Surprisingly, Avoid Negative

Media: New strategy team is known for hard-hitting spots. But first commercials seek to burnish GOP presidential candidate's image.

September 11, 1996|ELEANOR RANDOLPH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bob Dole released two new television advertisement Tuesday and, to the surprise of many, they were not particularly negative.

Ever since Dole's two top media strategists quit last week and were replaced by a team of three known for producing tough ads in the past, the political world has been abuzz with predictions that Dole would soon darken the airwaves with negative spots.

High on the rumor lists was a supposed series of "sleaze factor ads," including one that allegedly would feature the faces of various Clinton friends and appointees who have had trouble with the law or government investigators.

Clinton campaign aides were more than happy to contribute to the speculation about negativity--part of an emerging Democratic strategy of using every possible opportunity to claim that Dole is running a negative campaign. Democratic strategists believe that Dole will turn more negative as the election nears. Knowing that the public dislikes negative tactics, they hope to extract maximum advantage from portraying Dole as the campaign's "heavy."

The tough stuff may come later--Republican strategists say the campaign will try to sharpen its pitch later this month. But at least for now, the new ad trio of Greg Stevens, Alex Castellanos and Chris Mottola is not living up to advance billing.

The new ads--the first products from the new team--seek mainly to burnish the Republican candidate's image and draw only implicit comparisons with President Clinton.

One of the ads, a two-minute biographical spot produced by Stevens, is notable both for its absence of sharp edges and for the fact that with the election less than two months away, the Dole team still is seeking to communicate basic biographical information about their candidate to the public.

The latter aspect illustrates the difficulty the former Senate majority leader faces as he seeks to chip away at a solid double-digit lead in the polls that Clinton has held for several months.

The spot never mentions President Clinton by name; instead it features Dole speaking in broad terms about his hopes for the future and includes testimonials to his character and candor from his wife, Elizabeth Dole, and retired Gen. Colin L. Powell.

Only by praising Dole's character does the ad draw its unspoken contrast with Clinton. At one point, Dole, sitting in a relaxed setting and wearing a sports shirt, is talking about his youth when he says: "I remember in our household when you didn't tell the truth, my mother, she would, well, she would find a bar of soap."

Last week, with Dole trailing the president by as much as 20 points in polls, his campaign ousted advertising strategists Mike Murphy and Don Sipple, a California ad man who worked for Gov. Pete Wilson's gubernatorial campaign in 1994 and his brief presidential campaign last year.

In their place came the three known for their hard-hitting ads.

Stevens, who worked for George Bush's successful 1988 presidential campaign, helped produce an ad that included a photograph of a helmeted Michael Dukakis riding in the turret of a tank. The incongruity of the image was widely credited with damaging the Democratic candidate's appeal.

Castellanos worked for the failed GOP presidential bid of Texas Sen. Phil Gramm earlier this year. But he is best known in political circles for a spot he produced for Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina referred to as the "white hands" ad.

That ad, which ran in the closing weeks of Helms' reelection bid against Harvey Gantt, a black Democrat who was then mayor of Charlotte, showed a pair of white hands crumpling up a job rejection letter as an off-screen announcer talked about people losing jobs because of "quotas."

Mottola previously worked for the successful Senate campaigns of Florida's Connie Mack, who was among those Dole considered as a running mate.

Castellanos and Mottola both worked for the New York-based firm of Arthur Finkelstein, a pollster and media advisor best known for attack ads that seek to brand Democratic candidates as too liberal.

But the ads so far have little of that. The biographical ad produced by Stevens not only steers clear of direct attacks on Clinton, it stresses Dole's background as a son of rural America who, in the words of the spot's narrator, "put aside his dream of becoming a doctor and, instead, answered his country's call to duty."

In the ad, Dole chokes up slightly as he discusses recovering from wounds he suffered in World War II. The ad also includes images of a smiling Dole surrounded by children and waving to well-wishers.

The second new ad, an economic spot created by Castellanos and designed to focus on how Dole's economic plan would affect families, moves into television markets in key states in the next few days.

The ad focuses on working Americans as a way of pushing "Bob Dole's tax-cut plan." The ad pitches the 15% cut in income tax rates proposed by Dole, but also promises that he will concentrate on passing a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

The biographical ad will run on the major networks as well cable channels and frequently will appear during daytime hours, Koops said. Among the cable networks where campaign has purchased time are the Discovery Channel, A&E and the History Channel.

On the major networks, the decision to air the ad during the daytime is to target women, who strongly favor Clinton in polls.

The economic ad will be targeted at 14 states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, Koops said.

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