An anti--incumbency mood Newswatch...on politics today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcovert

September 17, 1990|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

LANSING, Mich. -- A television commercial for state Senate Majority Leader John Engler, seeking to unseat two-term Democratic Gov. James Blanchard, shows Engler shaking voters' hands as the voice-over says: "Across Michigan, he campaigns for change." A man Engler greets is heard to say: "Yeah, you betcha, I'm tired of Blanchard."

That in a nutshell is the pitch Engler is using against Blanchard, who weathered early political storms and then won overwhelming re-election four years ago. It is geared to capitalize on what Blanchard's own campaign manager, Gary Bachula, acknowledges is "an anti-incumbent mood" across the country, with state governors a particular target. He notes that 13 incumbents are not running for re-election this year, for various reasons.

Engler's ammunition includes his claims that, despite Blanchard's boast that Michigan is "the Comeback State," it still has the highest unemployment rate of any industrial state, the fourth highest property tax and a per-capita income that has fallen below the national average.

He charges Blanchard with "reliance on gimmicks and glitz" best illustrated in his heavy use of a state helicopter to hop around the state holding "media events." Engler's campaign manager, Dan Pero, has been seeking state records on the cost of the flights, suspicious that Blanchard may be avoiding state campaign spending limits by writing campaign trips off as official business.

To counter Engler's basic anti-incumbent pitch, the Blanchard campaign this summer bucked conventional wisdom by running negative ads against Engler, challenging his representation of himself as a new face promising change.

Incumbents with higher name identification than their challengers, as has been the case here, customarily ignore the opposition. But Blanchard's ads pointedly painted Engler as an old face -- nearly 20 years in the state legislature -- who rather than voting for change has been a prime obstructionist.

In answer to an Engler proposal to cut property taxes 20 percent, one 10-second Blanchard spot said: "Worried about property taxes? Don't count on John Engler for help. For 20 years, he's been promising us lower property taxes. Engler -- just another politician."

Other Blanchard ads, prepared by the Washington consulting firm of Squier-Eskew, told voters that Engler "voted against rolling back our car insurance rates" and hence was "the car insurance companies' best friend," that he "voted to take lottery money away from education" and "voted to let corporate polluters off the hook and force us to pick up the tab." Engler's roll-call vote was cited in most of these ads.

Bachula says: "You have an incumbent governor [of eight years] and a more incumbent majority leader." The ads were run, he says, because the Blanchard campaign "wanted the voters to know he's more incumbent than we are."

Also, Bachula says, the 1988 presidential campaign shattered the conventional wisdom against early use of negative campaigning. "George Bush dispersed the old theory when he defined Mike Dukakis before he defined himself." With a state limit of $1.5 million on campaign spending for the general election, Bachula says, negative ads are more effective than positive ones about an incumbent whose record is well known, especially when his opponent is falsely projecting himself as a new face.

Engler's television campaign has been focused chiefly on building up his own name identification and favorability, an effort that seems to have been effective. A Detroit News poll earlier this year had him trailing Blanchard by a whopping 53 percent to 18 percent. This month, another News poll had him behind only 50 percent to 38 percent. Engler forces contend the figures demonstrate that Blanchard's negative ads not only have been ineffective, but also may indicate a backlash against their use.

Blanchard has recently received a black eye in the Michigan press for the manner in which his lieutenant governor, Martha Griffiths, 78, was replaced as his running mate by a younger woman. Griffiths, a very popular veteran of the political wars, announced she would run again but he declined to keep her after leaving the door open for months.

Bachula says party leaders agreed with the switch and says he sees no drop-off of support. But the anti-incumbent mood hangs heavily over Blanchard's bid for a third term, with Engler milking it for all he can as the candidate of change.

Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of The Sunday Sun.

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