Lugar takes up the serious issues is anybody listening?


DES MOINES -- What's often said about the weather --that everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it -- equally applies to the level and tone of political campaigning. Like a bad snowstorm, people endlessly gripe about the superficiality and negativism of presidential candidates.

Now comes Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, a Republican candidate with a reputation for fairness and a distinct absence of frivolity. He recently jolted television viewers here in Iowa and in New Hampshire, sites of key early delegate-selection processes, with a series of campaign commercials about -- are you ready? -- nuclear terrorism.

This grim subject the topic of four television ads, presented in the form of a dramatic, fictionalized theft of nuclear material from the former Soviet Union and a terrorist threat to blow up three American cities.

In the first ad, captioned ''Day One,'' terrorists were shown unloading cases from an airplane and word of the action ripped from a printer at CIA headquarters. ''From the tragedy of Oklahoma City to the first act of nuclear terrorism is but one small step,'' Senator Lugar is heard saying. ''Suppose that terrorists had acquired a grapefruit-sized ball of highly enriched uranium. Most of the people of Oklahoma City would have disappeared.''

Then a television newsman: ''A rogue terrorist group has threatened to explode three nuclear bombs in the United States. Government officials are calling the report a hoax.'' After a shot of the White House, a presidential aide is seen reading the report and saying: ''I need to see the president -- now.''

The second ad conveys the President getting the frightening news as the newsman says: ''The central logic of terrorism is to maximize horror. What could be more shocking than to vaporize an American city?'' Then a little girl is seen saying: ''Mommy . . . won't the bomb wake everybody up?''

The next shows police finding a bomb, a traffic jam, soldiers on the alert, then an aide telling the president that the ''FBI says this is the real thing. . . . They're waiting outside, Mr. President. We need a decision.'' The final ad has Senator Lugar saying such issues must be discussed. ''Starting now,'' he says, ''the contest for the presidency must change. All of us in the race promise to balance the budget, cut taxes, shrink government. And with a Republican Congress, any of us will do this. But the president never gets to that agenda if America isn't secure.''

Most important contribution

The reaction was mixed. Mr. Lugar's rivals attacked him for milking the shock aspect of the ads. But a Des Moines Register editorial suggested that the senator's addressing ''the nuclear insanity . . . could be his most important contribution to the '96 campaign.'' So graphic were the ads that some local television stations felt compelled to assure viewers that they were fiction.

In the last week, the Lugar campaign has been running an ad summing up the previous four, and a new one is to be aired here with Mr. Lugar opposing repeal of the ban on assault weapons, a distinctly minority view among conservative Republicans. It will, says Mike Day, the senator's Iowa director who dreamed up the terrorist ads, ''send the same message that here is a reasonable conservative who is willing to draw the line where common sense dictates.''

The Lugar campaign in Iowa has also run a radio ad on Mr. Lugar's opposition to his party's efforts in Congress to have the school-lunch program administered by the states through block grants. It was another case of his willingness to inject a serious issue into the debate -- and to show himself as a candidate willing to make controversial choices.

While these efforts to raise the level and tone of the campaign have won Mr. Lugar some editorial praise, it's unclear whether they have lifted his standing with Iowa's voters. Curiously, he didn't follow the ads immediately with a visit to the state, as sound political tactics might have dictated. Before the nuclear-terrorism ads, he was mired in the single digits in the local polls. If he is to move up, now is the time, especially with a candidate debate scheduled here February 13, and with Mr. Lugar or someone else likely to mention the ads and the need to elevate the dialogue of the campaign.

Senator Lugar's approach inevitably generates speculation that he is in the race essentially to achieve that objective. There have been worse reasons.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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