Brace yourself, governor's race is getting nasty

October 20, 1994|By Frank A. DeFilippo

THE RACE for governor between Democrat Parris Glendening and Republican Ellen Sauerbrey distills to a single issue: Money vs. message.

Like it or not, Mrs. Sauerbrey has a seductive message that cuts across class and economic lines like a clear bell on a cold night. And Mr. Glendening is trying to muffle her message with millions of dollars in television advertising at the same time he's accenting his own positive virtues.

Mrs. Sauerbrey's primal scream for a 24-percent tax cut has caught the ear of the voters in Maryland just as it has in a dozen other states as well as the collective national conscience. But a recent Washington Post survey shows that while 66 percent of the voters favor a tax cut, 71 percent of the respondents doubt that she can deliver the pork chop.

As a counterpoint to Mrs. Sauerbrey's regurgitated Reaganomics, Mr. Glendening is employing television to present Mrs. Sauerbrey as an extremist who's against those liberal shibboleths, abortion and gun control.

Mrs. Sauerbrey is hoping to resonate with the electorate's low-boil frustration over bloated and wasteful government. And Mr. Glendening is betting that at least 50.1 percent of the voters are sophisticated (or feel threatened) enough to discern Mrs. Sauerbrey's economics as little more than a munificent gesture in a pauper's will.

Maryland, until recently very decidedly a one-party state, usually holds coronations, not elections. So, for the first time, the state is getting an eye-boggling look at what's known in the political industry as "attack" advertising.

Attack advertising differs from negative advertising by dint of using only factual information in a stacked way to spear the object of its disaffection. Negative advertising, by contrast, plays fast and loose with the truth. The difference boils down to truth in packaging: Everything in the package is true but how much truth is in the package.

So as the days dwindle down to a precious few until Nov. 8, the wonder is whether Mr. Glendening will be able to raise the $2.5 million he wants to sustain his television presence. And if he does, will there be any TV time left to buy. Ditto Mrs. Sauerbrey.

For the truth is, television and radio stations have had a cash-cow year. They've nothing to sell but air, and a record roster of candidates has been jamming the airways with commercials since spring.

Now, in the waning days of the campaign, it's tough to buy even air. Simply put, the stations are sold out. Any candidate who hasn't made a buy, as they say, might just be out of luck.

There are no choice news adjacencies left. Prime time costs a bundle. Nobody watches the Vegamatic and Chia Pet ads at 3 a.m. And cable TV is narrowcasting that's cheap but it'll get a candidate maybe at best a dozen viewers at any given moment.

As every political hobbyist knows, Mr. Glendening spent $3.4 million on the primary election. Add to that the $2.5 million he's trying to raise for the general election, and he'll set a new record -- just about double the $3 million Gov. William Donald Schaefer raised and spent in 1990, which was the record then. And it's also been a record local-election take for the electronic media as well.

Mrs. Sauerbrey, however, has accepted $997,000 in public financing and anything she spends above that amount will be charged against her account. The court has ruled, though, that she can accept unsolicited help from local Republican committees but not from the state party.

Times change. What we're seeing and hearing is tough stuff, not the ditzy feel good commercials of yesteryear's campaigns -- Mr. Schaefer working by night in his office; Harry R. Hughes cruising the Chesapeake Bay; Blair Lee III doing the job; the ever popular " 'Ted' Agnew is/My Kind of Guy."

No, this is surface-to-air missile politics, lethal and unpredictable. For one thing, those deadly in-your-face commercials shoot by like small-screen shrapnel. For another, there's no sure way to measure their effect on the electorate. In a sense, they're contrived cutting-room debates in place of the real sweaty-brow thing.

Mr. Glendening's targeting much of his advertising budget in the Baltimore market where he's little known and needs a large black turnout to win. And Mrs. Sauerbrey's doing the reverse -- cruising the airwaves in the Washington area where she has to cut deeply into Mr. Glendening's home base to capture the governorship.

Marshall McLuhan, godfather of the electronic age, observed that "instant reaction means instant involvement." Translation: Quick response commercials.

So see Mr. Glendening's commercials (accurately) portray Mrs. Sauerbrey's conservative positions on abortion and guns. And with neither a hem nor a haw, Mrs. Sauerbrey caught it on the curve.

Watch Mrs. Sauerbrey's commercials respond by accusing Mr. Glendening of being an "old-style politician" and of distorting her record on abortion at the same time she trumpets her economic message of tax relief.

Focus groups and the testing of key phrases and buzzwords in polls might very well catch the fancy and the wicked humor of the moment.

But in the long view, there is just as much danger that viewers (and voters) can become overexposed, tuned out, turned off.

Nasty commercials can produce the unintented consequence of nasty election results.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes on Maryland politics from Owings Mills.

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