MEDIA POLITICS : Both Sides Churning Out Attack Ads : Campaign Messages Moving Beyond Negative to Nasty

Times Staff Writer

The images are scary: prisoners marching in slow motion, polluted water, an empty Oval Office, life’s tenuous thread implied by the sound of a beating heart.

And the messages--in a new round of ads, on the news and on the stump in the presidential race--are turning from what many already bemoaned as negative to now threatening and frankly nasty.

“This is going to intensify,” one of George Bush’s closest and most senior advisers vowed privately in an interview Friday. The gates of animus have opened as never before, and “we are going to meet fire with fire.”

Although most Americans probably have not seen them yet, the latest commercials produced by the presidential campaigns are intensely negative: three new attack ads from Bush’s camp in the last 10 days, a breathtaking 12 new attack ads from Michael S. Dukakis’ camp in the last week.


And, because the tenets of presidential campaigning hold that ads work only when they reinforce the message voters get on the news, the candidates are getting even rougher on the stump.

On Friday, for instance, Bush devoted nearly half of his main campaign speech to denouncing a prison furlough program in Massachusetts, an issue that has been around for months but which reinforces a rough new Bush attack ad that started running Thursday night.

Long Wait for ‘High Road’

“Savage in their attacks,” was how NBC’s Tom Brokaw described the candidates appearances Friday. “Anyone waiting for the presidential campaign to take the high road” may find it “a wait without end.”


Bush’s three ads attack Dukakis for pollution in Boston Harbor, using slow-motion images and electronic music; for opposing the death penalty for killers of police officers, in a more traditional commercial, and for a Massachusetts prison furlough program in a black-and-white ad showing a metaphorical revolving prison gate.

The campaign is also airing positive ads about Bush’s record.

But Dukakis’ advertising campaign right now is entirely negative. Two of the ads attack GOP vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle, four show a fictionalized group of political consultants trying to package Bush and six more traditional spots assail Bush’s record on education, drugs, social security and the environment.

Neutral experts who have seen the ads consider Bush’s ads more effective, largely because they combine simple “factual-sounding” language with powerful visual imagery.

Ads Called Dramatic

“Dramatic,” UC Berkeley political scientist Austin Ranney called them, although he doubts that Bush will convince many voters that he is an environmentalist by attacking Dukakis’ record on Boston Harbor.

Bush’s ads on crime and the death penalty “have substance, they get the point across, and it is a point that matters to people and moves votes,” said Larry J. Sabato, professor of political science at the University of Virginia.

The experts, both in academia and in politics, have not been so kind to Dukakis’ ads.


Singled out for particular criticism is Dukakis’ elaborate series of ads called “The Packaging of George Bush,” in which a group of political handlers is depicted discussing strategy--an attempt to make political hay out of the perception that Bush is a carefully managed candidate.

Spots ‘Too Subtle’

“An utter waste of money,” Sabato said flatly. “They are too subtle, and they land with a thud because they tell voters what voters have always known, that they are being manipulated. The problem is that most voters believe they are manipulated by both sides, which they are.”

But Kathleen Jamieson of the University of Texas said that, lately, the image in the press is that Bush’s campaign is mostly style while Dukakis’ has more substance. “If that is true,” Jamieson said, “these ads fit into an existing press agenda” and will work.

Dukakis did well, most political professionals believe, by rolling out two anti-Quayle ads one day after the vice presidential debate. Both ads got air time on the networks Thursday, a splendid reinforcing of ads and news, and the campaign held showings Friday around the country to get air time on local news shows Friday night.

But one of the ads is part of the “packaging of Bush” series, and even some Dukakis officials privately conceded that they consider it weak. The second ad, a more factually oriented account of how often vice presidents become President, will make up 70% of the anti-Quayle ad time, at least in California.

When the Dukakis campaign introduced its anti-Quayle ads at a Los Angeles press conference Friday, reporters questioned whether the Democratic nominee was either desperate or bereft of any affirmative message of his own.

The reason is that negative advertising is risky. It can backfire if people consider the attack unfair or excessive. What’s more, historically, attacking a vice presidential nominee doesn’t move voters, thus doing so now raised the possibility that Dukakis was grasping for issues.


“But no one with Dan Quayle’s qualifications has ever run before, so I think this year is different,” said Tony Podesta, Dukakis’ California campaign director.

Jamieson also believes that, even though the Dukakis advertising is entirely negative right now, it may work because the image on the news of Dukakis is positive, a campaign energized, gleeful over Democratic vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen’s debate performance.

Bush, in the meantime, is on the defensive and is wisely mixing his negative ads with positive ads about his record, Jamieson said.

The news shows Friday night reinforced Jamieson’s view and generally played into Dukakis’ strategy.

All three networks and CNN showed a jubilant Bentsen, drinking in the cheers. Quayle, meanwhile, was trying out a line about how his “new assignment” in the campaign was to take all the criticism.

Ignored by One Network

Bush, despite his emphasis on the prison furlough issue, did not rate a story on ABC, although he got detailed treatment on NBC and about middling coverage on CBS.

But both CBS and ABC did pieces on the chances of the vice president’s taking over the presidency, pieces that resembled the imagery in one of Dukakis’ anti-Quayle attack ads.

Dan Rather on CBS said Bush “openly kept trying to run away from his running mate.” And NBC quoted from newspaper editorials critical of Quayle, including one from the “conservative Chicago Tribune,” saying: “If Bush wins, may he live for 100 years.”

How long will the darkening tone in the campaign last? Dukakis “needs to swing around from this message soon or it could hurt him,” Jamieson said. The second presidential debate, scheduled for next week, could provide the opportunity, “unless it is slash and tear,” she said.