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When a Trial Overshadows Candidates

When the most celebrated murder trial of the generation is held simultaneously with one of the most boring election campaigns, political consultants get nervous.

They know voters won’t be caring much about state bond ratings or a candidate’s tax returns when prosecutor Marcia Clark is tracking O.J. Simpson’s alleged trail of blood, or a witness is testifying about an intimate encounter with Nicole Simpson while her ex-husband was spying through the window.

On the other hand, if the trial gets bogged down in a scientists’ debate over DNA testing, peoples’ minds could wander. But the consultants aren’t counting on it. Nobody really knows what to expect. There’s no precedent for this.

The closest parallel probably was the Cuban missile crisis in late October, 1962, which froze the public and the election campaigns. Thirty years later, a month before the primary election, the Los Angeles riots mesmerized all Californians and campaigning went on hold.

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But both of these events were life-and-death matters that personally affected voters and perhaps their politics. The Simpson case is different. Except for the participants, this is a sporting event with the spectators having nothing personally at stake. What this means, however, is a mystery.

“Nobody’s a genius on what to do. This is terra incognita,” says political strategist Ken Khachigian, using the Latin term for “unknown territory.” He adds, “This is what screws up political counselors more than anything else--the unknown.”

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Some things are just logical. The public has been ignoring the candidates as it is. And once the trial begins Sept. 19, they’re likely to have more difficulty yet competing for attention, even if it is the campaign season.

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To help Treasurer Kathleen Brown, a Simpson specialist has been designated for her gubernatorial campaign. The aide monitors case developments to make sure her Los Angeles events don’t compete with Simpson news.

The specialist also monitors the whereabouts of TV cameras. And four times so far Brown has showed up at TV stakeouts for Simpson in an effort to get on the nightly news with her campaign pitch. Gov. Pete Wilson has tried this once. They’ve been less than successful.

“We’re trying to make lemonade out of the lemons presented us,” says John Whitehurst, Brown’s press secretary. “The lemon is that TV political coverage is restricted because the stations’ resources are stretched. The lemonade is that the cameras are clustered together for O.J. We’re bringing the campaign to the cameras.”

Another dilemma is when to run TV ads. Khachigian, who is advising two Republicans--Senate nominee Mike Huffington and Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren--says it will be risky to run political commercials during live trial coverage. But few viewers will be watching the other channels, he notes.

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“Commercials can appear tasteless after some witness has talked about finding the bodies,” the veteran consultant says. “I can’t imagine too many ads that might seem right.”

Most consultants will probably increase their TV buys during newscasts to capitalize on the additional viewers tuning in for trial developments.

Acting Secretary of State Tony Miller, the Democratic nominee for his office, says he is worried that candidates will escalate negative campaigning in order to attract their own news coverage. “They may push the envelope to compete with sensationalism.”

But Joe Shumate, the campaign manager for Miller’s opponent, Assemblyman Bill Jones (R-Fresno), says “there’s not anything at all that I plan to do differently because of the trial. . . . That may just show my limitations.”

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Which brings up the point: Maybe the Simpson trial will have no significant effect on the elections.

“Most TV stations don’t want to cover politics and government anyway,” asserts Kam Kuwata, campaign manager for Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. “During a heat wave, they go to the beach, take pictures and tell viewers, ‘It’s hot today.’

“The trial’s real impact may be minimal. Three weeks out from the election, swing voters will start looking for information like sponges.”

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But if they don’t and there’s a low turnout, most everyone agrees, that will help GOP candidates because conservatives tend to vote even when others stay home. Also, voter inattention especially hurts little-known candidates below governor and Senate.

“The O.J. trial does throw an ugly wrinkle into this,” notes George Gorton, Wilson’s campaign manager.

Of course, more candidates might try earning the voters’ attention by treating them like intelligent adults rather than ignorant boobs, but that’s another story.


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