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Davis' Problem: Attack Ads Offer High Reward but Carry High Risk

April 04, 2002|George Skelton

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gray Davis faces a painful dilemma and you can't blame him if he's flinching. He needs to smack rival Bill Simon on TV with damaging attack ads. But when he does, the blows likely will carom back at him.

"Just being a great big thug is not necessarily the way to get reelected," says Republican analyst Tony Quinn. "Davis' problem is people don't like him."

Problem No. 2 is that people will like Davis even less when he starts attacking Simon in TV ads. A candidate's shelling of an opponent often ricochets back on himself.

A classic example was the 1998 "murder-suicide"--a characterization coined by Davis strategist Garry South--when gubernatorial aspirant Al Checchi destroyed both his and Rep. Jane Harman's candidacies with relentless attack ads.

Darry Sragow, a former Checchi advisor, notes that Davis "can't afford to have Bill Simon paint a flattering picture of himself for very long. But on the other hand, when you attack an opponent, you almost invariably pay a price."

"While attack ads done right can be very effective, voters tell us in focus groups they don't like negative campaigning. Negative ads are a turnoff, but the fact is they work."

The latest example was the Democratic governor's $9-million ad assault in the Republican gubernatorial primary that fatally wounded Richard Riordan, the Republican feared most by Davis.

But the governor did pay a price: He could have spent those millions touting the Davis record and boosted his popularity, but opted to ruin Riordan instead.

Consequently, Davis' job rating among registered voters near the end of the primary was an ambivalent 47% approval and 47% disapproval, according to the Times Poll. That's slightly worse than it was when the governor began running the attack ads, although a bit better than last June at the height of the energy crisis.

Among primary voters on election day, according to a Times exit poll, Davis' job rating was a dismal 41% approval, 59% disapproval.

South explained Davis' strategy at a recent conference in San Diego of the American Assn. of Political Consultants.

"It was a calculation," South told his fellow gurus, "but our view was that we were not going to substantially improve the governor's numbers over the course of a two-month primary campaign by putting on purely positive [TV] spots talking about him and his record ....

"The real imperative ... was to make sure [Riordan] did not walk through the primary and have a substantial lead on us when it was over."

South added, in a comment reflecting his and Davis' bare-knuckles approach to politics, that Riordan should have been prepared for the assault because the former L.A. mayor "had been warned for months we were not going to allow him to bang on the governor without some kind of response ....

"To think that was an idle threat, or our team was so namby-pamby we wouldn't carry through, or the governor was such a wimpy politician he wouldn't hesitate to attack an opponent is something they should have understood from the history of this campaign team."

Davis also told Times staffers last week: "A candidate cannot just sit back and allow someone else to misrepresent their record .... People are likely to believe what they hear unless there is some refutation."

As for voters not liking him, the governor said: "I mean, I'm not asking people to marry me. I'm asking them to make a decision as to who do they want to govern this state."

These hardball attitudes are why many politicos expected Davis to start belting Simon on TV the day after the primary--pounding him for his right-wing positions against abortion rights and gun control.

"Never had any such plans," South insists. "Didn't even have spots in the can. That was all hype and mythology."

When will the aerial bombardment begin? "Our strategy is set. We know what we're going to do. But that's proprietary. We're not going to give away our recipe for the secret sauce."

Davis probably is flinching. But he also has other reasons for not yet buying TV ads, positive or negative.

It's seven months until November. TV spots are very expensive--roughly $2 million per week statewide--and even a governor with $30 million in campaign cash must be prudent.

He also needs to be prudent with an inattentive public's patience. "We'd wear out our welcome with voters," South concedes.

Moreover, people's attention right now is turned toward possible all-out war in the Middle East, plus terrorism and a shaky economy.

"People are jumpy," says Davis pollster Paul Maslin. "If this thing gets worse, it's going to have a big impact on the November elections. In what way, we don't know yet."

It's a prudent time to flinch. Hunker down and govern--a proven way to boost that job rating.

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