Hatfield fights to survive ... on politics today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

November 05, 1990|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Republican Sen. Mark Hatfield, battling to save his seat against Democrat Harry Lonsdale, was asked at a press conference here the other day how much campaign money he had raised. He didn't answer directly, saying instead that he had what he needed to buy "enough points" to get his message out.

Then Hatfield added: "I've learned a a new lingo" -- referring to the measurement of television time bought, known in the trade as "gross rating points." Any halfway-aware politician these days knows what such "points" are. The comment revealed something about the political education of Mark Hatfield, and something about why he's in trouble against a previously unknown political neophyte.

Hatfield in four previous Senate races prided himself in eschewing the kind of expensive, television-oriented campaign that has become the vogue. He depended on his reputation as an Oregon institution for more than 30 years, first as governor and then as senator.

But he never had to cope with a hard-hitting foe like Lonsdale, or the voter frustration toward congressional excesses and incumbents that exists today. With "citizen candidate" Lonsdale playing effectively on that frustration, Hatfield's failure to respond forcefully on television clearly hurt him.

A Lonsdale television ad campaign in early September, hammering at Hatfield as the tool of special-interest political action committees funding his campaign, produced startling results. In a Portland television station poll, Lonsdale spurted from 36 points behind to six ahead.

That was, as Hatfield aides now describe it, "a wake-up call." The senator shook up his staff and replaced bland positive television commercials with tough negative ads against the opponent he had heretofore ignored.

Tom Imeson, his new campaign manager, says "the Hatfield campaign in a sense set itself up by saying it was not going to run a media campaign." Hatfield's lack of interest in a more combative campaign, Imeson says, was seen by voters as an indication he was taking his re-election for granted, a dangerous impression in the current anti-incumbent climate.

Since that "wake-up call," however, Hatfield has been throwing himself angrily into the campaign, responding to the basic Lonsdale allegation that his long Senate tenure has changed him for the worse. Lonsdale says he used to vote for Hatfield himself but "twenty-four years in Washington has changed Mark Hatfield."

Lonsdale, who declines to take PAC money (but has spent a reported $700,000 of his own), has cast Hatfield as the captive of the state's critical timber industry, which opposes a total ban on export of Oregon logs proposed by Lonsdale. Lonsdale insists the ban is needed to keep jobs in Oregon. In one ad, he says, "if Japan wants our lumber they can have it," but in the form of finished-wood products made in the state by Oregonians.

Hatfield argues that the correct approach is to negotiate the opening of Japanese markets to Oregon finished-wood products, and he boasts of his personal success with the Japanese ambassador to that end. But the Hatfield argument that his longevity in the Senate pays off for Oregon seems to be losing much of its persuasiveness. At a senior-citizen center in suburban Beaverton during a Lonsdale visit, a number of residents said they had always voted for Hatfield but "it's time for a change."

As Hatfield has joined the fray, the campaign has become increasingly negative, leading him to lament that "the negative virus has finally come to Oregon," a state that has always prided itself in clean campaigns. In what appears to be an effective effort to play on that pride, Hatfield in recent days has been running positive ads, while Lonsdale keeps pounding on him -- a hint he may see the election slipping way.

The latest Portland Oregonian poll gives Hatfield a five-point lead, a drop of one point since late September. Both sides say the race is closer and are flooding television in the final days with "enough points" to saturate the tolerance of the most pliant Oregon voter.

For years, Hatfield thrived as a maverick. Now he is being painted as just another insider who has sold out to special interests. Whether voters believe that or not, they know he has been around a long time. And that in itself, in the existing climate, is what he must overcome to survive for a fifth term.

Columnists Germond and Witcover, members of The Evening Sun's staff, also appear in the Perspective section of Th 1 Sunday Sun.

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