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Bush Finally Attacks

CAMPAIGN ROADMAP / A continuing series of articles analyzing the 2000 presidential strategies.

September 10, 2000|Linda A. DiVall | Linda A. DiVall, president of a public-research firm, was a senior advisor to Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign

WASHINGTON — The punditocracy is chattering about the Bush campaign's unleashing of negative ads against Vice President Al Gore (but uttered nary a whisper when Gore began his attacks in early June and continued to air them throughout the Republican National Convention). While not without risk, and certainly not anywhere near tough enough against Gore, many GOP insiders are saying "It's about time."

The rules for attack advertising are not exactly hard and fast, but here's a primer on the tactics.

* The attacker should have credibility and be able to maintain a reasonably positive favorablity-unfavorablity ratio. Bush's likability is significantly high enough for him to expend some political capital by going on the attack to regain control of the agenda.

* Changing the campaign's dialogue should be a goal. Gore has been controlling the agenda by highlighting prescription drugs and attacking Bush's tax-cut plan, but he has not had to defend the cost of his own budget plan (a future attack point) or his bad judgment with respect to illegal fund-raising efforts in 1995-96.

* Tonally, use humor, irony or sarcasm so that critical swing voters such as women, moderates, suburbanites, independents and seniors don't get turned off. For example, an ad paid for by the Republican National Committee, and endorsed by the Bush campaign, not so subtly mocks Gore's newfound commitment to campaign-finance reform by showing footage of his appearance at a Buddhist temple, where campaign money was illegally raised, and his tendency to exaggerate by repeating Gore's claim that he created the Internet. In this way, the GOP base is galvanized, swing voters are reminded of Gore's character flaws and core Democrats have to swallow hard and accept the obvious shortcomings of their presidential nominee.

* Strategically, the attack should return the campaign to its fundamental premise: In this case, that Bush will restore honesty and integrity to the White House, while Gore will not necessarily be any different from the current occupant of the White House when it comes to character and values.

* The entire campaign effort--schedule, speeches, advertising, media--needs to be in sync. In other words, you want each tactic to reinforce or bolster your overall effort.

* Don't back off until you have achieved your goals. In this case, the ad highlighting Gore's hypocrisy and tendency to exaggerate sets the table for two likely attack spots: one on Gore's promise to debate "anywhere, any time, anyplace," which he is now backing off from, and one closely scrutinizing Gore's budget plan, which will show that he does not have the money to pay for his campaign promises and is actually reinventing big government.

The subjects of the RNC attack ad echo verbatim responses we obtained from likely voters in an early July national survey. Respondents were asked what their hesitation was in voting for Gore; their answers perfectly frame Gore's vulnerabilities: "He's a political chameleon"; "Al Gore is just a continuation of the lies and the deceit and the cheating"; "The conflicting reports on his ethical issues"; "He's a hypocrite. He mentions that he didn't know he was soliciting funds at Buddhist temples. That's a baldfaced lie. He thinks we're a bunch of idiots. He's just a continuation of Bill Clinton as far as I'm concerned."

Will the tactic succeed? Obviously, that can't be answered at this time. But the ad does expose three significant Gore flaws: his hypocrisy (campaign-finance reform); his tendency to exaggerate (his role in inventing the Internet); and his proximity to Clinton and use of legalisms to extricate himself from uncomfortable situations (when asked about fund-raising calls he made from his White House office in 1995-96, Gore said there was "no controlling legal authority").

GOP insiders welcome Bush's decision to go after Gore and are pleading with him to be much harsher in his treatment of Gore's vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, the Gore campaign, through the Democratic National Committee, has replicated Clinton's 1996 strategy, aggressively attacking Bush in 17 key states since June without any response from Bush or the RNC. Dick Morris was the architect of this strategy and boasted about it in his book. "Once we were advertising heavily," he wrote, "no rational strategist should have failed to oppose our ads. . . . I kept telling myself, 'They have to answer,' but they never did."

Here's what's happened this summer: 68% of the presidential-campaign spots aired in Philadelphia were Democratic ads; in Pittsburgh, it was 73%. Democrats aired 60% of the ads seen in Cincinnati, 58% of those in Cleveland, 69% of those in Detroit. In other critical media markets, Democrats aired 68% of the ads seen in Orlando, 71% in Milwaukee and 65% in St. Louis.

Bush's decision to go negative now is exactly right and needs to be intensified to counter Gore's summer-long assault. Gore's convention bounce has been sustained, and national polls and the electoral-college scorecard show the race to be highly competitive. With attack ads, Bush can regain control of the agenda and change the electoral-college landscape. *

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