MEDIA POLITICS : Both Campaigns Launch Ads on Prison Furlough Issue

Times Political Writer

Crime, an issue usually associated with state or local races, remained sharply in focus in the 1988 presidential campaign Friday, with both sides launching TV ad campaigns pounding away at the subject.

Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis’ campaign came slugging back on a nagging issue--prison furloughs--by unveiling a new national television ad that accuses Republican nominee George Bush of distorting the facts.

And an independent committee supporting Bush in California unveiled new spots featuring the victims of Massachusetts’ most famous felon, Willie Horton.

“The crime issue is being used by Bush to raise the question of risk in the minds of voters about Dukakis,” Washington Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman said.


Charges Traded on Issue

On Thursday in New York, both sides traded charges on the crime issue, and as Bush campaigned in a working-class white neighborhood, his strategy was clear: He is using the crime issue to go after conservative Democrats.

In California, Bush campaign official Brian Lungren said: “All of our targeting now is toward what we call Reagan-Deukmejian Democrats--those who voted for the President and the governor in the last two elections. Crime is a big issue with those folks.”

The new ads released by the pro-Bush Committee for the Presidency feature Donna Fournier Cuomo, whose brother was killed by Horton in 1974, and Cliff Barnes, who was beaten by Horton and whose fiancee was raped in 1987 after Horton fled authorities while on a furlough in Massachusetts.


On the Dukakis side, the new crime ad, which starts nationwide today, makes a major attempt to seize the emotional ground in the way the Bush campaign has done so effectively for weeks.

Murder by Furloughed Pusher

Noting that thousands of drug dealers have been furloughed from federal prisons under the Reagan-Bush Administration, the ad’s narrator says: “Bush won’t talk about (the) drug pusher, one of his furloughed heroin dealers, who raped and murdered Patsy Pedrin, pregnant mother of two.”

Pedrin was raped and killed by Angel Medrano in Tucson in 1987 while Medrano was on federal furlough.


The Dukakis ad also accuses Bush of “taking a furlough from the truth” when he does not tell voters that the Massachusetts furlough plan was started before Dukakis became governor and altered by him after the Horton incident.

The Massachusetts program no longer grants furloughs to murderers serving life without possibility of parole. The Horton victims contend that they had to pressure Dukakis to change the law.

CBS and NBC aired excerpts of Dukakis’ new ads on their evening news shows Friday as examples of what the campaign is doing. That was a plus for the Dukakis forces, since media consultants believe that news reports of such attack ads boost their credibility and reduce the chances of a backlash from viewers.

The real question for Dukakis now is whether his counterattacks are too late. He trailed Bush by 7 percentage points or more in recent national polls.


As late as last week, the Dukakis campaign in California was frantically trying to find a case like Medrano’s to use in counterpunching Bush. The Republican attacks on the crime issue began during the summer.

“I think it is about time they ran this,” California Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp, a Democrat, said Friday after viewing the new Dukakis spot.

Although acknowledging that new independent Republican ads attacking Dukakis on the furlough issue probably will be effective, Van de Kamp said Democrats will begin “fighting fire with fire.” He pointed to a new 60-second commercial that will start running nationwide this weekend.

‘Full of Lies’


In the ad, Dukakis attacks a new Bush commercial that shows Dukakis riding around somewhat erratically in a tank while a narrator lists weapons systems that the Democratic candidate is supposed to be against. Dukakis watches the Bush ad on TV, then switches it off, faces the camera and says:

“I’m fed up with it. George Bush’s negative ads (are) full of lies and he knows it. I’m on the record for the very weapons systems his ad says I’m against . . . . “

Television viewers appear to be in for three weeks of a political ad barrage, since each campaign had more than $25 million left to spend from its federal campaign allocations as of Sept. 30.

But in California, at least, they could have trouble buying air time. The well-financed ballot propositions focused on the insurance industry threaten to clog the airwaves, Bush campaign spokesmen say.


That would appear to work against Dukakis, since Bush began attacking in the state with his TV ads two months ago and has now opened up a 9-point lead in the latest California Poll.