DES MOINES, Iowa -- Conventional political wisdom holds that an incumbent seeking re-election should ignore his opponent and concentrate on telling the voters what a terrific job he's done himself.
Until last week, two-term Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, seeking a third term, did just that, running positive television commercials pointing to his accomplishments over the past eight years. One such ad talked of 300,000 new jobs, rising land values and students leading the nation in test scores.
The ads were the work of the much-demonized Roger Ailes of New York, who masterminded the George Bush attack on
Michael Dukakis in 1988. This season's early Branstad ads, in fact, ran the risk of painting Ailes as Mr. Nice Guy.
But, in a relatively mild fashion, Mr. Nice Guy reverted to his more celebrated form in the latest Branstad ad. In it, a woman from the town of Oelwein tells of contacting the office of her state legislator, House Speaker Don Avenson -- who is now the Democratic nominee for governor against Branstad -- for help on a foreclosure threat to her family's farm. She says she was told Avenson didn't involve himself in foreclosures and so she turned to Branstad, who helped save the farm.
Avenson on seeing the ad reacted like a man running against Ailes as much as against Branstad. He charged they were "hitting the panic button" with a "mudball campaign" that soon would turn into "an avalanche of negative ads." He said the woman in the ad, Karen Kane, was a Republican activist who worked against his re-election two years ago and has ambitions for elective office herself.
Avenson was suggesting that the woman was not your average farm wife -- a notion that might occur to any attentive television viewer on seeing her in a fashionable red dress, carefully coiffed hair and long, gold earrings. In any event, Avenson called on Branstad to withdraw the ad as "inaccurate and unfair." He told reporters his staff keeps precise records of all constituency calls and had no record of any from the woman -- although one had come from her father several years ago and had been referred to an emergency foreclosure center maintained by the state.
David Roederer, Branstad's campaign manager, says the ad won't be pulled, and that Avenson's complaint is no more than a "smokescreen" to obscure his voting record in the legislature, which in the Republican view has been consistently obstructive.
That certainly is true in terms of Avenson's running battles with the GOP governor throughout Branstad's first two terms.
Avenson, in fact, seeks to make his opposition a cornerstone of his challenge, particularly involving what may prove to be the pivotal issue in the campaign -- abortion.
As speaker, Avenson has vowed never to let a bill restricting a woman's right to choice reach the governor's desk, and it hasn't. Through most of his two terms, Branstad was an unequivocally anti-abortion governor, embracing the pro-life movement without qualification and receiving its endorsement in equal measure. But, since the Supreme Court decision permitting states to impose some restrictions, which has flushed out a zealous abortion-rights sentiment in Iowa as elsewhere, Branstad has tried to present a more moderate posture.
Roederer says the governor, while still pro-life, "would work for a consensus on any kind of change," though he doesn't believe one will be proposed by the legislature. Iowans for Life, while holding firm to its anti-abortion position, continues to support Branstad as its best bet against pro-choice Avenson. C.C. Zenti, the group's spokesperson, says it is "playing it very close to the chest" in how to turn out the vote for Branstad, but in the end "we'll be very visible."
That ordinarily would mean heavy television, but Iowa stations in the primary refused all ads from either side of the abortion debate and are likely to do so again. Shelley Bain of the Iowa Chapter of the National Abortion Rights Action League says this policy means a concentration on identifying pro-choice women by phone and heavy Avenson mailings to them.
A new poll for Iowa television stations shows Avenson trailing Branstad by only 44 percent to 47, and that, says Avenson, is why an incumbent governor has started "going negative." The latest Iowa Poll by the Des Moines Register has Branstad ahead, 50-37, seemingly no cause for panic. But Avenson insists that the anti-incumbent mood is stirring in Iowa, and Branstad knows it.