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Two Campaigns Escalate the Rhetoric in Ad War

September 28, 1996|ELEANOR RANDOLPH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — The presidential ad war has started. The mudslinging has officially begun.

After a full year when the Clinton camp has been running ads designed to work like drops of water eroding even the most solid Republican support for Bob Dole, the Republicans have finally started to fight back, unveiling two new spots in the last 10 days that don't mince words or spare the pictures.

While voters consistently say they dislike "negative" or "attack" advertising, the new television spots do clearly state what each party sees as the other side's major vulnerabilities.

One of the new GOP ads blames Clinton for increased drug use among teenagers, using Clinton's own words on MTV and even an unseemly giggle to make him look less than vigilant on this issue.

The other, released Thursday, labels the president "a real spend-and-tax liberal."

The ad runs through a list of spending programs that Clinton allegedly has supported--at least one of which the administration denies--then shows a news clip of Clinton saying, "I don't think that qualifies me as a closet liberal."

An off-screen voice then says, "That's not what the facts say, Mr. Clinton. The real Bill Clinton? A real spend-and-tax liberal."

That ad emphasizes Dole's chief current theme: that despite his carefully cultivated image of moderation, Clinton is actually a committed liberal.

Democrats, for their part, are firing back. Last week, they launched a counterattack on Dole's drug ad, charging that Dole opposed past efforts to pay for anti-drug programs and saying that "all Bob Dole offers are slogans."

On Monday, the Democrats opened with an ad that looked like something kept in reserve for use only if the other side got nasty.

Called "Wrong in the Past," the new Clinton ad targets Dole on two levels: one obvious, the other more subliminal. The ad criticizes Dole's positions over the last 30 years on Medicare, education, drugs and gun control. To do that, Clinton's ad team, led by Robert Squier, put together a spot that flashes pictures of Dole since the 1960s so that the candidate appears to age 30 years over the course of 30 seconds.

The ad's obvious text is simply to accuse Dole of being wrong in votes over the years. The subtext is to convey the sense that Dole is both old and a Washington insider who has been in Congress for three decades.

A third Democratic ad, released Friday, juxtaposes a picture of Dole with one of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

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An announcer touts Clinton's economic record, then reminds listeners that Dole has frequently voted for tax increases and that Republican opponents in the past have labeled him the "tax collector for the welfare state."

A survey of ad buys by Competitive Media Reporting for CNN showed that Dole was running ads in states that are presumed to be bastions of Republican support, such as Nebraska and Arizona.

In the meantime, he seems to have largely given up on other major states, such as the Pacific Northwest, where he is not airing advertisements.

On the plus side for Dole, the new ads are part of a larger campaign strategy that has paired advertising in key states with the candidate's message on the stump--a pairing that is considered a basic part of campaign strategy, but which the Dole effort at times has lacked.

"There has been a significant coordination between what was said on the campaign trail and what has been on television," said John Buckley, Dole's communications director. "For a while the ads did not match what was happening elsewhere, and for a long time we were unable to afford any advertising at all. Now it's all coming together, and we are beginning to get some traction."

Whether Dole has gained any "traction" in the race remains to be seen. Some polls have shown the race tightening slightly, although even in those surveys Clinton retains a hefty lead. Other polls have shown no tightening.

For months, Republican strategists have been asserting that it is not what you spend on ads over a year that counts but what you spend in the last few weeks of the election.

The Republican plan, based in part on necessity after a tough Republican primary season, is to load the airwaves between now and Nov. 5 to erode Clinton's lead.

Buckley estimates that both parties and their allies have spent about $145 million on advertising already in this election year, with the GOP being outspent by the Democrats and their supporters until recently. Since Labor Day, however, the Clinton campaign and Democratic Party have spent about $9 million, compared with about $10 million from the Republicans, Buckley said.

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"There's no question that in the last three weeks the volume of Dole campaign ads has been immense, and that should help them," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.

Until now, the percentage of Republicans telling pollsters that they plan to defect from their party and vote for the Democratic candidate has been running at near-record levels.

"But, the fact that people are suddenly seeing that much pro-Dole, anti-Clinton stuff helps to move some of those Republicans back to admitting their partisan predispositions," Mellman said.

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