GOP negative ads in Mich. may gain it a Senate seat



MONROE, Mich. -- Spencer Abraham, the Republican nominee for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Democrat Don Riegle, was telling some employees at the National Galvanizing plant here the other day about how voters often greet him around the state. "People ask, 'Are you already a congressman?'" he said. "I say, 'No,' and they say, 'OK, I may vote for you.' "

That comment, Abraham said, reflected the low public esteem in which Congress is held these days. It was a convenient point for him, inasmuch as his Democratic opponent is Bob Carr, who has served 18 years in the House of Representatives.

Abraham's campaign has been driving home the point in a clever television ad in which Carr's face turns into Riegle's through a computer process known as "morphing," as a narrator seeks to paint the two Democrats as liberal peas in a pod. "Morphing" presumably stands for metamorphosing. Leave it to the TV image manipulators and wordsmiths to come up with that one.

Abraham himself needed no such electronic magic to produce two real fellow Republicans here whose views he implied he will embrace if he is elected on Nov. 8. Moments after he had quoted the folks on the street about their contempt for Congress, Republican Sens. Phil Gramm of Texas and John McCain of Arizona appeared at the plant to urge Abraham's election.

The two senatorial visitors agreed that the Congress in which they serve was not an admirable place -- that is, not in Democratic hands. A victory for Abraham, they said, is critical to the Republicans' chances of taking over, which would require a net gain of seven seats, at which time Congress presumably would be "morphed" into political paradise.

Carr, by contrast, is arguing that Republican control of Congress -- the GOP needs a 40-seat pickup to take over the House -- would turn the 1990s, politically speaking, back into the 1980s before the country's very eyes. He calls the ballyhooed Republican "contract with America," signed by more than 300 congressional candidates, a return to the failed supply-side economics of Ronald Reagan or, as he puts it, "Voodoo Two."

Just as the Abraham ad ties Carr to Riegle, who is leaving under the savings-and-loan scandal cloud as one of the "Keating Five" accused of preferential treatment for a now-convicted financier, Carr uses the "contract" to tie Abraham to Republican congressional leaders such as House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole and Gramm.

In some ways, this race in Michigan is an exercise in guilt by association on both sides. In a debate in Lansing the other day, when Abraham in response to a question said he was supporting Iran-contra figure Oliver North, the Republican senatorial nominee in Virginia, Carr said the two Republicans had "a connection -- they share the same media consultant." Abraham shot back: "We also have the same phone company." And when Carr insisted that Abraham and North were "cut from the same cloth," Abraham asked, heatedly, referring to the fellow Republican he had just said he was supporting: "Are you saying I've lied to Congress?"

Carr later, complaining about being "morphed" into Riegle in the Abraham ad, added: "You'd think that my first name was Clinton, [as in] Clinton Carr." Although Carr has expressed his support for Bill Clinton, he is still chafing over stories that he ducked him during a presidential visit on Oct. 11.

At the event, at a Ford Motor Co. plant, Carr remained in a roped-off VIP area instead of sharing the platform with Clinton. Carr says now with a mixture of anger and chagrin that the event was officially a non-political event run by Ford executives who ruled that candidate Carr not stand with the president. Carr says Clinton later apologized to him for the foul-up, but that didn't stop the Republicans from exploiting it. The president is to return to Michigan to campaign for Carr on Nov. 1.

Abraham, meanwhile, eagerly embraces Republican Gov. John Engler, considered a shoo-in for re-election against former Democratic Rep. Howard Wolpe. Abraham talks about what "Governor Engler and I" have done for Michigan, although he has never held elective office in the state, or anywhere else other than as state party chairman.

The polls here are close, but Abraham's negative ads, and general hostility toward Congress, have taken their toll on Carr, so this Democratic seat clearly is in jeopardy.

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