Everybody deplores negative advertising -- they only do it because it works

February 16, 1996|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- During the Iowa caucuses, when free-spending Steve Forbes was bombarding Sen. Bob Dole with negative television ads, Mr. Dole wise-cracked at one point that ''I've seen so many of those negative ads that I'm thinking of not voting for myself.''

It was a funny one-liner, but apparently a lot of Iowa Republicans not only thought the same but really did not vote for him. His disappointing 26 percent of the vote in narrowly besting Pat Buchanan's 23 percent was accompanied by an equally disappointing turnout -- about 96,000 voters, far short of the 135,000 predicted by Iowa state party chairman Brian Kennedy.

All the post-mortems on the Iowa vote attributed much of the apathy, and Senator Dole's relatively weak showing in a state where he won 37 percent of the vote in 1988, to voter backlash against the barrage of negative advertising. Optimists expressed the hope that the Iowa example would lead to a less negative campaign in this final week before Tuesday's primary here in New Hampshire.

Forbes reforms

That hope has hardly been realized. Mr. Forbes, who ran a dismal fourth behind Senator Dole, Mr. Buchanan and Lamar Alexander in Iowa, has regrouped and pulled all his negative television ads here, replacing them with strictly positive ads touting such things as his help to his home-state governor, New Jersey's Christie Whitman, in cutting taxes.

At the same time, however, Senator Dole has now targeted Mr. Buchanan, perceived as his chief threat here, with pointedly negative ads labeling him an ''extremist'' who has advocated giving nuclear weapons to Taiwan and other countries. Mr. Buchanan has countered with an ad denying the charge and accusing Mr. Dole of talking one way and acting another on tax cuts, job protection and supporting conservative judges.

The ads are Mr. Buchanan's first notable entry into the negative-advertising war. He avoided harsh exchanges with opponents in the Iowa caucuses, boasting that he was the only seriously contending candidate who was remaining positive in his advertising. It was easy for him to do so because no one was attacking him. He reasoned that his supporters were so committed that his opponents decided not to waste resources going after him.

Targeting Buchanan

But after his near-victory over Senator Dole in Iowa, New Hampshire is a different story. The Dole campaign obviously believes it must cut Mr. Buchanan down to size by labeling him an extremist and arguing that therefore he can't be nominated. Both the Dole and Buchanan campaigns argue that they have to defend themselves; ancient political wisdom holds that a charge unanswered is a charge believed.

Mr. Alexander continues to contend that he is the one candidate who has not engaged in what he calls the ''mudslinging'' of the other candidates. He insists he is staying on the high road, a claim that diminishes when it is recalled that he ''went negative'' as far back as last August, critically greeting the entry into the race of Gov. Pete Wilson, since departed.

The one candidate who indisputably has run a clean campaign devoid of attacks on his opponents has been Sen. Richard Lugar. His reward for running the kind of high-road campaign that politicians, the press and voters always say is needed to uplift the process was a sorry seventh-place finish in a field of nine in Iowa, with 4 percent of the vote. Polls here in New Hampshire give him about 3 percent.

Senator Lugar, obviously chagrined, is now running a radio ad here in which he deplores his opponents' negative campaigning and points out that he has indeed stayed on the high road. A woman supporter asks how she can teach her children to be fair and truthful when they see and hear men who aspire to the presidency dishing dirt about each other.

Optimism quelled

While the backlash in Iowa has persuaded Mr. Forbes, for a time at least, to get off the low road of negative advertising, it hasn't seemed to affect the others much. The optimists who thought the expressed revulsion to negative campaigning in Iowa might cause the surviving candidates to get religion on the matter have have second thoughts already.

The political pros always say they hate negative ads ''but they work.'' As long as they are convinced of that, such ads aren't likely to go away.

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

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