Hopeful finds Senate race tougher without TV boost



ST. LOUIS -- It was 5 in the afternoon, and Democratic Rep. Alan Wheat was only getting started on the publicly visible part of his day in his campaign for a U.S. Senate seat from Missouri against favored former Republican Gov. John Ashcroft.

The reason for the late start was the same for Wheat as it is for many other candidates, Republican and Democratic alike, these days when television advertising is king in American politics: money.

Wheat had been closeted in his campaign headquarters office all morning and afternoon making telephone calls pleading for contributions to enable him to get his message on the air.

All through August and September, Wheat had to sit by, working the phones asking for money, while Ashcroft was able to lambaste Wheat in his own television commercials "in the clear" -- delivering the Ashcroft message with no television response from his Democratic opponent.

It is an accepted axiom in politics that an allegation unanswered is an allegation believed, so the saturation attacks by Ashcroft had taken their toll, keeping Wheat as many as 15 percentage points behind, according to Wheat's own campaign manager.

Wheat had just raised and spent $2 million in narrowly winning his Democratic primary, while Ashcroft, without serious primary opposition, had been able to save his ample campaign treasury for the general election.

Although Wheat was anticipating a transfusion of $250,000 as his share from a fund-raiser by President Clinton a week earlier, the money had not yet been received, so no Wheat ads had yet been aired. (The first started over the weekend).

On this afternoon, Wheat was late for an important meeting with the St. Louis Clergy Coalition of ministers from some 110 area black churches because he first had to finish a schedule of fund-raising calls. En route to the event he talked realistically about his situation.

On the previous day he had spent two hours driving south from St. Louis to Cape Girardeau for one meeting at which he had addressed about 100 voters (some of them Young Republicans at a local college, there to ask him loaded questions) and for another meeting attended by perhaps 40 party loyalists already supporting him. Then he had to drive another two hours back to St. Louis after doing a local television interview that got him on the air for a minute or two.

In that very brief interview, Wheat observed, he was heard by many thousands more voters than he had encountered in person in the four-hour round trip to southeastern Missouri. No matter how hard he campaigned in person, he acknowledged, he had to be competitive with Ashcroft on television to have a chance to win.

At the same time, Wheat said, the role of television in the campaign was a seriously distorting one, not only because of exaggerated allegations but also because of the requirement to boil down the message into a 30-second commercial.

Ashcroft and Wheat acknowledge that, in terms of their stance on key issues, this Senate race is a clear-cut choice between a conservative (Ashcroft, who served eight years as governor) and a liberal (Wheat, seeking to be the first black statewide-elected official in Missouri).

But with Ashcroft declining to debate down the stretch (three debates have been conducted, but only one televised statewide), the chances for any detailed discussion of issues such as crime, health care and the economy to a mass audience are slight as the candidates shoehorn their arguments to fit the commercials.

Ashcroft says he doesn't want to "just try to slap labels" on his opponent, and therefore is running an "issue-oriented" campaign. "When people in Missouri say, 'Show me,' they don't mean, 'Show me labels and show me name-calling,' " he says. "They want to be shown specific positions and records."

Ashcroft's other ads do focus on issues such as welfare reform and the death penalty, which he favors and Wheat opposes, but in the oversimplified "sound bites" that are common fare in campaigning by television. He also issues position papers, as does Wheat, but they simply don't reach voters the way ads do.

Of the difficulty of campaigning by television, Wheat says: "You have to try to get out the essence of what you believe as truthfully and as forcefully as you can in a very short period of time. And I've got no magic formula for doing it any better than anyone else."

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