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The Question Facing Jones: TV or Not TV?

Times Staff Writer

Barring a last-minute change of strategy and fundraising fortunes, Republican Bill Jones could become the first major candidate in more than four decades to wage a U.S. Senate campaign in California without airing a single television ad -- the equivalent of jumping into a gun battle without bullets.

Jones’ lack of ads also could make history nationally. Political historians could recall no other senate or gubernatorial race nationwide in which one of the major party candidates did not turn to the politician’s favorite weapon, the 30-second spot, since television ads began dominating campaigns in the early 1960s.

“It sounds like it’s unique,” said Lewis Mazanti, curator of the Julian P. Kanter Political Commercial Archive at the University of Oklahoma, which holds 70,000 television and radio campaign ads.

The political oddity of Jones’ ad-free campaign against Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer underscores not only his straits but also the continued weakness of the California Republican Party despite last year’s election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor.

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This is the first statewide race since then, and Jones’ failure to generate any heat -- even among the faithful -- suggests the recall of Gov. Gray Davis had more to do with personality and circumstance than a resurrection of a state party that sent Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to the White House, and George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson to the governor’s office.

“The election to recall Gray Davis was not a pro-Republican vote, it was an anti-Gray Davis vote,” said Melissa Michelson, a political analyst at Cal State Hayward. “Republicans might put on a brave face and say Schwarzenegger shows California has turned to their party, but deep down they know it’s not true.”

California is not the only lopsided race this fall. In a U.S. Senate campaign in Illinois, Democrat Barack Obama holds a 45-point lead over onetime presidential candidate Alan Keyes, who became the Republican challenger after Jack Ryan quit the race over salacious accusations in his divorce proceedings. Still, Keyes managed to get some ads on the air last week in southern Illinois.

Even in tiny Delaware, which has no media market of its own, candidates turn to TV, though they have to cross state lines to Philadelphia or Salisbury, Md., to do so.

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Four years ago, Democrat Thomas Carper unseated Republican incumbent Sen. William Roth in a campaign that University of Delaware political analyst Joe Pika said included $2 million in television ads -- high for Delaware but about a week’s worth of airtime for one statewide California candidate.

“The big problem here is only about 15% of Philadelphia’s viewing audience is in Delaware, so spending money to broadcast to 85% nonvoters is a huge investment of money for very little return,” Pika said. “Plus it’s very crowded. There are always a lot of races in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, so the time is very expensive.”

Still, unlike Jones, the candidates buy.

“I’ve been here since 1981 and I can’t recall any [Senate] races that did not include at least some ads,” Pika said.

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If Jones’ lack of ads is indeed a record dating to the 1960s, Sen. William Proxmire’s name must be entered into contention with an asterisk. Proxmire, who won five terms in the U.S. Senate from Wisconsin, was a famously low-budget campaigner, refusing to take contributions in his last three reelection bids. His final race in 1982 cost $145.

But he wound up in TV ads anyway.

“What he did was endorse other candidates and then appear in their ads, and promoting himself in so doing,” said Kanter, who began collecting political ads in 1956 and donated his collection in 1985 to launch the Oklahoma archives.

Television ads are believed to have first been used in a 1950 U.S. Senate campaign by Connecticut Democrat William Benton, an advertising executive. “But there probably wasn’t more than 5,000 or 6,000 televisions in the whole state at that time,” Mazanti said.

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They first cropped up in a presidential race in Dwight Eisenhower’s 1952 campaign, in the early days as half-hour programs -- political infomercials.

“By 1960, it was a pretty dominant media,” Mazanti said. “Both Kennedy and Nixon recognized the power in television.

“Besides both running television ads, they appeared on ‘The Jack Paar Show.’ By the mid-'60s, it was recognized as a necessity, for the upper ballot, at least.”

But to buy ads, you need money, which has been Jones’ nagging difficulty.

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Jones got into the race relatively late -- in December. With Schwarzenegger’s endorsement, Jones handily won the March Republican primary.

But there the campaign stalled. Voters were not interested, money trickled in and by the time Labor Day rolled around -- the final push in the campaign marathon -- Jones had no cash for ads, effectively handing the air war to Boxer, who throughout the race has held a double-digit lead in most polls.

“I don’t think the finance community thought he had a chance from Day One,” said Stuart Spencer, former campaign manager for Ronald Reagan, Nelson Rockefeller and others. “If they don’t think you’re going to win, you’re not going to get a lot of support.”

Spencer, whose Spencer-Roberts firm helped pioneer professional campaign management, said he cannot recall a top-ticket candidate in California skipping TV ads since he ran Sen. Tom Kuchel’s 1962 reelection bid -- which included TV spots.

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“In a state this size, your chances of being successful are just not there without some paid media,” Spencer said.

The absence of ads for Jones led Boxer to wage the most benign campaign of her career.

A tough fighter whose earlier races were marked by hard-edged, negative spots, Boxer had already taped a few “issue-contrast ads,” as Boxer spokesman Roy Behr described them, for this race.

Then she sat back to wait for Jones to make the first move. But Jones never moved.

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So Boxer has filled her $7 million worth of air time with soft issue ads, touching on education, healthcare and the environment. The closest any has come to drawing blood is the recent, “Just One Vote,” in which Boxer scores “extremists” in Congress as a threat to abortion rights and warns that the Supreme Court is one vote away from repealing Roe vs. Wade.

“To be honest, I like it like this,” Boxer said this week after speaking to more than 300 people at a Laguna Woods Democratic Club meeting at Leisure World.

“It’s not so much a defense as it is an offense ... on the issues I think are important,” Boxer said.

Jones’ failure to get on the air doesn’t mean the campaign has been toothless.

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On the trail, Jones has blasted Boxer over what he argues is an out-of-touch, leftist political view of the world that endangers national security, a legislative record short on successes and an elitist approach to wilderness areas that puts more value on preservation than commercial and recreational uses.

Spencer, who has directed scores of campaigns, has never been forced to fight without TV ads.

If he faced that circumstance now, he said, he’d have a simple solution:

“Punt.”

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