MINNEAPOLIS -- Candidates and their campaign managers are forever saying they abhor negative advertising, but justify using it because "it works." But here in the Minnesota Senate race between incumbent Democrat Paul Wellstone and Republican Rudy Boschwitz, the man he knocked out of the Senate six years ago, that alibi may be proving, happily, to be invalid.
From July to early September, a barrage of television ads for Mr. Boschwitz that ridiculed Mr. Wellstone apparently cut an eight-point Wellstone lead in the Minnesota Poll to a virtual dead heat. But the next month Mr. Wellstone's lead shot up again to nine percentage points, amid evidence that the ads finally began to backfire on Mr. Boschwitz.
The same mid-October poll for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Station WCCO-TV found that 44 percent of those surveyed said that they were more likely to vote for Mr. Wellstone as a result of all the campaign ads they saw or heard about, to only 30 percent who said the ads made them more likely to vote for Mr. Boschwitz.
After that poll came out, the Boschwitz campaign stopped running negative ads. But the hammering at Mr. Wellstone has continued as a result of attack ads by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, supposedly financed independently of the Boschwitz campaign.
The continued negative barrage has enabled Mr. Wellstone, even though he is now the incumbent, to cast himself as David to Mr. Boschwitz' Goliath, just as he did in 1990 in upsetting a Republican incumbent.
The fact that Mr. Wellstone has represented Minnesota in the U.S. Senate for the last six years seems to have given him a certain insulation against the negative ads that, among other things, have caricatured him as a buffoon as well as, as some of the ads put it, "embarrassingly liberal."
An attack on Mr. Wellstone as an ultraliberal has been no surprise, and is an adequate description, for the most part. His voting record in the Senate has been conspicuously more to the left on his own party's spectrum, and particularly when compared to Bill Clinton.
But Mr. Wellstone in the Senate has continued to perform as he campaigned six years ago, as a sort of Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" -- his own man sticking tenaciously to what he believes in, even at the cost of ruffling feathers in his own party.
While Mr. Boschwitz argues that Mr. Wellstone's liberalism puts him outside "the mainstream in Minnesota," his ads have gone beyond that contention to cast Mr. Wellstone as a clown surrounded by 1960s flower children. One ad "inducted" him into a fictitous "1967 Liberal Hall of Fame" while long-haired, bearded hippies in the street garb of the Sixties applauded languidly, as if their brains were fried.
Another showed him as a cartoon character in ill-fitting suit and chronicling his liberal positions. That one had the voice-over declaring Mr. Wellstone "embarrassingly liberal and out of touch."
But the anti-Wellstone negative ads may well have proved too embarrassing to Minnesota voters, who pride themselves on a tradition of clean politics and campaigns.
At the same time, Mr. Wellstone has taken a number of positions and actions as senator that counter the presumption that he always follows liberal ideology. Rather than take the side of environmentalists in a dispute over land and water use, he brought the two disagreeing sides into mediation.
While such actions do not change the view that Mr. Wellstone is very liberal, they do reinforce a view that he is the incumbent senator working for a broader constitutency than just liberals, and that he now has a stature that makes heavy caricature of him in questionable taste.
Mr. Wellstone has made the negative ads against him a central issue of his rematch with Mr. Boschwitz, calling on Minnesotans to reject that kind of campaigning. It seems to be working, a hopeful sign for politics in a time of rising public cynicism.
Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 10/28/96