Brass Knuckles and Kid Gloves

The Trick? Bloody the Other Guy While Keeping Your Nose Clean

By Published on .

Marc Brownstein Joe Erwin
For the presidential candidates, Iowa and New Hampshire are now in the rearview mirror as attention turns to Michigan, South Carolina and the bounty of Super Tuesday states. Already the pundits are breathlessly anointing winners and losers, suggesting strategies and attempting to predict what happens next.

Here in South Carolina we're bracing for an onslaught of TV ads as candidates desperately seek to define themselves on their own terms, rather than be characterized by the increasingly negative rhetoric emanating from competing campaigns. Both Republicans and Democrats have seen an increase in personal attacks the past few days as early voting results -- and the ensuing media commentary -- have crystallized who's in front and who's in danger of being left behind.

There's no question that bringing attention to the possible shortcomings of one's opponents is a time-tested political strategy, and one that won't be going away any time soon. But smart campaign managers with a long-term view will be mindful of the potential damage such a strategy can have to their candidate's long-term appeal.

As marketers, we often face similar challenges balancing the need to drive short-term business results against the sustainability of the brand. That doesn't mean you have to choose one over the other; just that any effort to create an immediate impact should be done in a manner that's consistent with the brand's ultimate value proposition.

Witness Mitt Romney's second-place finishes to Mike Huckabee in Iowa and John McCain in New Hampshire. Romney outspent Huckabee more than five to one in Iowa and more than doubled McCain's spending in New Hampshire. But, as Ira Tenowitz's story suggested earlier this week, voters may well have been more turned off by Romney's negative attacks than they were actually drawn to anything his opponents had to say. Could that be because the harsh spotlight Romney cast was diametrically opposed to the handsome, statesmanlike figure his campaign has worked so hard to establish?

Equally intriguing is the battle brewing between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, where the freshman senator from Illinois has the former First Lady scrambling to devise an underdog strategy few would have surmised she'd have to employ. So far the Clinton team has maintained the integrity of the Hillary brand by focusing on their candidate's perceived strengths in ads and other public forums -- while others on the fringes of the campaign take on Obama head on.

Fresh off his unexpected loss to Clinton in New Hampshire, it'll be interesting to see what kind of response that elicits from Obama, a relative newcomer to the national political stage who wisely surrounded himself with a number of stalwart Democratic strategists. So far his message has been above board and positive . . . easier to do when you're the front-runner. Question is whether he can remain on brand with Super Tuesday looming and so much at stake.

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A former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, Joe Erwin is president of Erwin-Penland, a 180-person full-service advertising and marketing agency in Greenville, S.C., that is part of Interpublic Group of Cos.' Hill Holliday Connors Cosmopulos.
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