Forbes leads field in attack ads Going negative: Steve Forbes' immense wealth allows him to spend a fortune on advertising. The three North Carolinians who produce his ads wasted no time in doing what they do best: negative advertising.

Campaign 1996

February 09, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In November, a representative of Steve Forbes' political advertising agency made a fateful phone call to Julie Campasano, who books political ads at WMUR-TV in Manchester, N.H.

"They wanted to do a 'megabulk buy' -- that's what they called it," Ms. Campasano recalled. "They wanted tonnage, they wanted frequency, they wanted to be wherever they could be. They wanted to buy every stitch of advertising they could get -- and they darn near did. They had a walloping schedule."

Financing his own upstart campaign, Mr. Forbes, heir to the Forbes publishing fortune, has turned the Republican presidential primary season upside down, riding his estimated $25 million media blitz to near the top of the polls in New Hampshire. As many as 85 percent of voters there say they have seen his ads.

Having devoted far less time than his opponents to press-the-flesh campaigning, Mr. Forbes is providing a test of how much public opinion can be shaped by relentless political advertising.

Age-old debates rage in political circles about what kind of ads work best: positive ads, negative ads, informational ads, feel-good ads, response ads or deceptive ads. But Mr. Forbes' ad campaign is not likely to answer those questions -- he's using them all.

His first ad, which hit the airwaves Sept. 14, introduced Mr. Forbes and his plan for a simple 17-percent "flat" tax -- with a positive message about the candidate.

"Words that rule our lives," intoned an announcer. Three images then accompanied script:

"The Declaration of Independence: 1,300 words

"The Bible -- the Word of God: 773,000 words

"The tax code -- the words of the politicians: 7 million, and growing."

Mr. Forbes then appears on camera. "Our tax code is monstrous, dishonest and riddled with loopholes," he says. "I say scrap it and replace it with a low, simple flat tax with $36,000 tax-free for a family of four."

It concludes: "Steve Forbes for President. The only Republican who will change Washington."

Inoffensive as the ads were, they were produced by three North Carolinians -- Tom Ellis, Carter Wrenn and John McLaughlin -- with reputations for negative campaigning. Democrats on the losing end of their ad campaigns warned that it wouldn't take long for them to "go negative." It didn't.

By early October, the Forbes campaign had targeted the Republican front-runner.

"The Senate was to vote on term limits Oct. 12, but it didn't," one ad said. "Would you believe Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole canceled the vote, so there will be no term limits in the Senate this year?" Mr. Forbes then appeared on screen, saying: "Senator Dole is wrong. Term limits will restore honesty to Washington -- and that's the kind of change we need."

At a time when Republicans traditionally slam the Democratic incumbent more than they do each other, this ad sent a jolt through the party establishment. It was also misleading.

Last March, Mr. Dole had promised 11 Republican freshmen that he would bring to the Senate floor a constitutional amendment to require term limits for members of Congress. By October, that effort had faltered.

It mustered a majority in the House, but nowhere near the two-thirds it needed. Knowing they lacked enough votes in the Senate, nine of the 11 Senate freshmen persuaded Mr. Dole to delay the vote until April. Mr. Dole had simply complied with their wishes.

On Oct. 31, Mr. Forbes aired a radio ad asserting that "since 1982, Bob Dole has voted for 16 tax increases" totaling $962 billion. In January, the campaign became more specific, and more negative. "Should Congress have spent $6 million of taxpayers' money for an Idaho ski resort?" asked one ad. "Bob Dole voted to increase taxpayer-funded congressional pensions," asserted another.

Both ads ended the same way: "Two men. Different values. Bob Dole -- Washington values. Steve Forbes -- conservative values."

Worked for Jesse Helms

To North Carolina Democrats, who'd complained about the unfairness of Mr. Wrenn's negative attacks, these ads were eerily familiar. Some recalled one used in 1990 by the same team of advisers against Democrat Harvey Gantt The ad ended: "Harvey Gantt: Extreme liberal values. Jesse Helms, North Carolina values."

"It's like watching a rerun," said Gary Pierce, an aide to Jim Hunt, who lost to Mr. Helms in 1984. The Forbes attack ads also used a favorite device of the Carter Wrenn team: portraying an obscure procedural vote as something that reveals hidden vices of the target candidate.

The $6 million for the Idaho ski development, for instance, was inserted into a $14 billion spending bill at the insistence of another senator. Mr. Dole could have stopped it only by stopping the whole bill -- the very reason that Senate Republicans, Mr. Dole included, favor giving presidents the power to veto individual items in a spending bill.

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