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Ad Has Both Parties Testing the Theory of Negativity

Politics: GOP unveils critical spot as swipes increase on each side. But attacks may turn off voters.


The presidential campaign entered September rife with hostility, as the Republican National Committee launched an advertising assault on Democrat Al Gore's honesty and the major party candidates swapped increasingly vitriolic insults.

An RNC ad--due to begin running today in 16 states, though not in California--accuses Gore of perpetually "reinventing" himself and cites his controversial 1996 fund-raising visit to a Southern California Buddhist temple.

The ad, approved by the Bush campaign, coincides with a sharply hostile turn in the tone adopted by the Republican and Democratic tickets. The decline in civility comes after Gore's rise in the polls, leaving the race in a dead heat as the campaign heads into Labor Day, the traditional general election kickoff.

In recent days, GOP nominee George W. Bush has ignored his long-standing promise to run a positive campaign, railing at what he terms "seven years of failed leadership" on the part of President Clinton and Gore. His running mate, Dick Cheney, has repeatedly sniped that the Democrats have destroyed the nation's military strength.

On the Democratic side, Gore has criticized Bush for not fleshing out some policy proposals, and vice presidential nominee Joseph I. Lieberman has alternately asserted piety and slammed his opponents.

The sharpest weapon, and the one with the greatest potential for wounding both sides, was the Republican ad. It contrasts Gore's visit to the Hsi Lai Buddhist temple in Hacienda Heights, Calif., with his pledge to reform campaign finance laws.

The temple visit led to the federal felony conviction of a Gore fund-raiser. The vice president has said he did not know the event was designated as a fund-raiser; Atty. Gen. Janet Reno has spurned calls to appoint an independent counsel to investigate.

The new ad also cites Gore's much-maligned claim that he spurred the development of the Internet.

"Al Gore, claiming credit for things he didn't even do," the ad says. A woman, unseen as Gore appears on a kitchen counter television, adds to his Internet claim: "Yeah, and I invented the remote control too."

The commercial was a clear attempt to wrest back those voters--particularly women, hence the female voice--who have turned from Bush to Gore since the selection in August of Lieberman and the Democratic convention in Los Angeles. It will air across the crucial upper Midwest, where the election may well be decided, and in a host of other states considered up for grabs.

Ad Could Hurt Both Campaigns

While the 30-second commercial is aimed at a character trait long considered a Gore weakness, it is a clear departure from the optimistic tone that Bush has long promised. As such, it has the potential to harm Bush as well.

"To me, the most attractive part about Bush has been his optimistic, upbeat, hopeful message," said Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, who is not working for the Gore campaign. "It is a danger for him to be down and dirty, and it's probably compounded for him in that, in reality, he isn't well-known."

Republicans had damage control in mind Thursday as they universally described the ad as "light" and "good-natured," although it actually was sharp and pointed.

"In a fairly good-natured way, [the ad] makes a fundamental point," said RNC spokesman Clifford May. "I fail to see how that's personal."

Karl Rove, Bush's chief strategist, argued that Gore was to blame for the ad, since he vowed in his convention address to make campaign finance reform the priority of a Gore administration.

"He doesn't have any credibility on that," Rove said.

In response, Democrats howled and laid the groundwork for a backlash against the Texas governor. The campaign trotted out Lieberman, the ticket's designated hitter on moral issues, who decried the GOP ad during a Seattle rally.

"I'm sorry to say that Gov. Bush's promise to change the tone of American politics has run into the reality of a troubled Bush-Cheney campaign," the senator from Connecticut said. "Because these new attack ads break his promise not to launch personal attacks in this campaign, and they drag us back to the worst politics of the past."

Gore, at the same rally, stayed silent. Neither Democrat addressed the subject of the ad.

Democrats Criticize Commercial's Tone

Pleased to be able to take the high road, the Democrats also unleashed a blizzard of communiques: the campaign citing a CNN report that the commercial was a "negative ad" and calling attention to Bush's repeated promises to be positive.

Gore's communications director, Mark D. Fabiani, cited Bush's previous run of negativity, which occurred when Sen. John McCain of Arizona challenged him in the South Carolina primary.

"When George Bush's back is against the wall, he will do anything to get elected," said Fabiani, turning around the Bush campaign's assertion that Gore will "say anything" to get elected.

The Bush campaign effectively took credit for the RNC-sponsored ad with its admission that it was given advance notice of its contents.

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