FALL ELECTION ADS TIPTOE AROUND CHARACTER ISSUE: PUNDITS SAY CANDIDATES MUST AVOID SCANDAL, TELL THE TRUTH

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Republicans are stepping gingerly into the fall election when it comes to running ads mentioning President Clinton and the White House sex scandal.

With the traditional Labor Day kickoff of election campaigns, the president's woes are being directly and indirectly cited in ads in only a handful of senatorial, congressional and gubernatorial races.

GOP advertising consultants said the scandal will play an important role in many races, but there's little need to bring it up via attack advertising because of extensive media coverage.

"It's a mistake to run an anti-Clinton campaign," said Mike Murphy, senior partner of the Murphy, Pintak, Gautier, Hudome Agency, McLean, Va., and a veteran of GOP presidential campaigns. "You don't need it."

BAD CLIMATE FOR DEMOCRATS

Mr. Murphy said the scandal has created "a bad climate for Democratic candidates" and predicted Democrats will have to resort to attacks to shift the spotlight.

"They will want to change the subject," he said.

Stuart Stevens, founding partner of Stevens & Scriefer Group, Alexandria, Va., and another leading GOP ad expert, suggested the scandal is "a key in which music of the campaign will be played."

Character is "potentially relevant to any [candidate] who has had credibility problems," he said. "This year there is a deep longing for anyone who will tell the public the truth."

Mr. Stevens suggested that in many districts, the most effective ad response to the scandal may be portraying a candidate as real, genuine and honest.

"It will make negative advertising work less well," he said.

CALIF. CLIMATE

In California, GOP Senate challenger Matt Fong has criticized Democratic rival Sen. Barbara Boxer for pushing for former Sen. Bob Packwood (R., Ore.) to resign but not President Clinton. Mr. Fong has yet to do so in advertising, however.

Sal Russo, who is president of Russo Marsh & Raper, Sacramento, and handles Mr. Fong's advertising, declined to say whether character and Mr. Clinton will be the focus of future spots.

The tactic "works in areas where a candidate is dogged with problems," said Sig Rogich, president of Rogich Communications Group, Las Vegas, and a veteran of the Ronald Reagan and George Bush campaigns, "but I don't think it works across the board. Character has a place, but how you get to it is another matter."

Some Republicans said it can be more generally used to attack Democrats.

"If you have a federal candidate who has voted with Bill Clinton, our advice is go full throttle -- stick it to him," said Trey Walker, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party. The party, in a radio spot produced before Mr. Clinton's speech acknowledging his relationship with Monica Lewinsky that also ran in the state after the speech, criticized Democrats who "lie just like Bill Clinton."

FEW SCANDAL ADS SO FAR

Up to now, just one or two campaigns are known to have attacked the presidential scandal directly.

Alabama GOP congressional candidate Gil Aust ran a TV spot that featured headlines and pictures of Mr. Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky, overlaid with the words "trust" and, eventually, "resign." It was done by agency Roy Fletcher Inc., Baton Rouge, La.

Last week, the National Republican Congressional Committee launched its first spot of the fall election. Appearing under the sponsorship of the Nevada Republican Party, it ripped Democratic congressional candidate Shelley Berkley and ended with the words, "tell her honesty does matter."

The spot, which ran only in that congressional district, was from Greener & Hook, Washington.

Rep. John Linder (R, Ga.), who chairs the NRCC, said similar ads will appear in several other districts.

He added that the GOP will launch another more-national message later this month.

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