Ads turn down and dirty as election day nears Glendening, Sauerbrey go on the attack in fight for undecided voters.

Campaign 1998

October 25, 1998|By JoAnna Daemmrich Thomas W. Waldron | JoAnna Daemmrich Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Ellen R. Sauerbrey and their barrage of attack ads have done what not even a ringing phone can -- disrupt Jim Carter's nightly ritual of watching the weather report.

"I'm disgusted," said Carter, 69, a retired sheet-metal worker who lives in Severna Park. "If one of those ads comes on, I turn off the TV. I don't want to hear it. I don't want to see it. I don't care, I'll miss the weather."

For the first time, Marylanders are being subjected to the kind of relentless, vicious television advertising war that has been a campaign staple in other states.

As the gubernatorial campaign enters its final week, experts and average voters agree that they've had enough of the negative ads, which air dozens of times a day on TV stations across the state.

But locked in the costliest race for governor in Maryland history, neither candidate is ready to ease up and risk being wounded. Overall, Glendening and Sauerbrey are spending about $10 million on the campaign, much of it devoted to attacking each other with unflattering footage, sinister soundtracks and not a hint of humor.

While voters may be turned off, experts say that the ads are a proven way to score political points.

"Where the campaign is"

For better or worse, many Marylanders are getting a large share of their insights from the 30-second television spots.

"We don't have great debates anymore. This is where the campaign is," said Carol Arscott, a Howard County-based Republican consultant. "This is where a couple million people are going to get most of their information."

In a race that polls show to be a statistical dead heat, the Democratic governor and his Republican opponent have turned

increasingly to scorching sound bites to make an impression on the one-third of the electorate who say they are truly undecided or lukewarm in their support.

The Glendening-Sauerbrey race -- a rematch of their 1994 battle that turned on fewer than 6,000 votes -- has also prompted special interest groups to pour money into direct mailings, radio ads and even additional TV spots. Both state parties have weighed in, as have a group of Baltimore ministers, the Sierra Club and the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association.

"I think we've reached the saturation point," said Del. Maggie McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat. "Right now, to most people it's probably just gunfire going back and forth."

A change in tone

After beginning the campaign with positive, feel-good ads about themselves, Glendening and Sauerbrey unleashed their attacks -- staged by two high-priced Washington consultants who are known for negative tactics. Along the way, they've taken political advertising to new heights in Maryland.

Sauerbrey's initial spots, which mentioned her modest beginning Baltimore and her steelworker father, were widely praised by political analysts and the public. Most saw them as more effective than Glendening's policy-heavy commercials that lacked spark.

By late September, the tone had turned decidedly negative. Glendening hired a new consultant, who produced ads slamming Sauerbrey as a tool of the National Rifle Association and an environmental risk who would harm the Chesapeake Bay. Featuring grainy photographs of Sauerbrey, the Glendening commercials went on to skewer her for her bitter challenge of the 1994 election results and to denounce her legislative record on civil rights.

Sauerbrey has countered with hard-hitting commercials that criticize Glendening for building football stadiums instead of schools and arranging a lucrative pension deal for himself. So far, local analysts, including some Republicans, are giving Glendening's attacks higher marks as sharper and more focused.

Some voters offended

Both candidates defend their commercials, which they prefer to call "comparative," as necessary to distinguish themselves. But voters interviewed in coffee shops and senior centers said they were wearied and offended.

"The nearer to the election it gets, the trashier it gets," said Bob Pettit, 45, while breakfasting at Chick & Ruth's Delly in Annapolis. "If the remote is handy, I'll flip the channel. But you know it's only a 30-second spot, so sometimes, I'll just go get a soda. I think everyone's numb to it now. I am."

At Pascal Senior Center in Glen Burnie, John Carter, 65, said he is almost as fed up as his brother, Jim. "I don't find them entertaining. Not at all." He said, however, he and his brother are still planning to vote.

"They're very hostile," agreed Ray Fuchs, 61, who teaches a computer class at the senior center. "I just get up and walk away. I think both [candidates] are trying to shock people into voting for them, but I don't know if it's going to work."

At least one ad -- produced by Maryland thoroughbred racetracks promoting slot machines in Maryland -- seems to have caught on. While it doesn't mention the governor's race, the ad is widely perceived as a slap at Glendening, who opposes legalizing slots.

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