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Candidates aren’t accentuating the negative, yet

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Times Staff Writer

As summer turns to fall, the presidential race is heating up: Candidates are swinging elbows in debates, flaying each other in speeches and siccing newspeople on their party rivals. The question is which candidate takes the next step -- airing the first negative TV advertisement of the 2008 campaign.

“We’ve seen swiping and sniping,” said media analyst Evan Tracey. “The natural progression is to take that to the airwaves and put it in an ad.”

But it’s not that straightforward. Although voters may assume that negative campaigning is the natural order of things -- birds fly, fish swim, politicians wrestle in mud -- the launching of an attack ad is one of the most difficult and important tactical decisions a campaign can make.

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With the balloting in the presidential nominating race less than four months off and the holiday season looming, the timing has become even more acute.

In a two-person race, a negative spot runs the risk of backfiring, damaging a candidate as much as or more than it does the intended target. The dynamic is trickier in a crowded contest like the presidential primaries. The cycle of attack-and-response can lead to the political equivalent of murder-suicide, killing off the candidates fighting on the airwaves while benefiting those not engaging.

Examples abound, including the 2004 race, when Democratic Iowa front-runners Howard Dean and Richard A. Gephardt turned the state’s airwaves into a free-fire zone and finished third and fourth, respectively, killing their White House hopes. There were other reasons that contributed to their poor showing -- Dean, for one, turned in a lackluster debate performance just days before the vote -- but the lesson most political professionals took away was “that Iowans are so nice they’ll punish anyone who brings negativity into the race,” said a strategist for one Democratic hopeful. “So that’s having a real influence on people’s thinking this time.” (Most campaign insiders agreed to talk about negative advertising only on a not-for-attribution basis, so they would not associate their candidate with such tactics.)

The calculations are especially fraught for a handful of top-tier candidates. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York on the Democratic side and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani on the Republican side are already seen as combative, polarizing figures; lashing out on the airwaves might feed that. For his part, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois has railed against the politics of negativity and division -- something the Clinton camp is quick to point out anytime he is critical of the former first lady.

So given the downside, why put out a negative ad in the first place? Because elections are about choices, and to make a choice voters need to compare and contrast. A glossy, self-promotional advertisement -- the type that front-running candidates typically air -- may offer only part of the story. “Somebody is not going to tell you about the bad issue positions they’ve taken in the past,” said a strategist for one of the leading GOP candidates. “So you have to bring it up for them.”

And, hopefully, bring a rival down in the process.

The presidential campaign ads so far have been mainly of the feel-good sort -- a blur of candidates shaking hands, hugging supporters, speaking resolutely. Cuddly children abound, and there is lots of red, white and blue.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has aired the most TV advertising, about $6 million worth, mostly in Iowa and New Hampshire, according to TNS Media Intelligence’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, which Tracey runs.

On Wednesday, Romney began airing a spot chastising fellow Republicans and urging the GOP “to put our own house in order” by reining in spending, cracking down on illegal immigration and tightening the party’s ethical standards. “It’s time for Republicans to start acting like Republicans,” Romney said. “It’s time for a change, and change begins with us.”

The rest of the GOP field has spent relatively little or nothing on TV advertising.

On the Democratic side, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has spent about $1.4 million, Obama about $1 million and Clinton and Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut a few hundred thousand dollars apiece, according to Tracey. Again, most of the spending has been in Iowa, which is to hold the first vote of the presidential race.

For all the importance of one-on-one campaigning in the early states, and for all the time spent in debates and candidate forums, TV advertising remains by far the most effective way of reaching voters. Candidates can verbally jab each other onstage in debates or speeches, but that doesn’t have the same effect as criticism leveled in a 30-second spot.

“Only a small fraction of voters will watch any given debate or read any one newspaper article,” said Jim Jordan, a Dodd strategist. “That simply isn’t the same as reaching every caucusgoer in Iowa with a charge they will see 10, 12, 15 times in a TV advertisement.”

Campaign consultants dislike the term “negative advertising” as much as voters profess to loathe the nasty spots that campaigns sometimes produce. The preferred term is “comparative advertising,” and those who make their living in politics draw a distinction between attacks on a candidate’s personal character or integrity and advertising that points out substantive differences. They presume people watching at home do the same thing.

“Voters are very open to information about candidates in a comparative way,” said an ad maker for one of the leading White House contenders. “The yardstick is whether they seem fair and factual. At the end of the day, while voters say they hate negative ads and find them distasteful, it is clear they often get information they use in making up their minds.”

Still, given the risks -- of a voter backlash, of sullying a candidate’s own image, of curdling Christmas -- perhaps this will be a primary season in which all of the contestants stick to positive themes and no one says anything bad about their primary opponents, at least on TV.

Don’t hold your breath.

“At the end of the day, politics is a goal-oriented game with a deadline,” said a veteran of several primary fights. “If you’re running out of time and feel like you’ve got to change the game, people will do what they have to do.”

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mark.barabak@latimes.com


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