Mudslinging begins early for prez races

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Front-running GOP candidates feel most of heat from negative themes in ads

With only two weeks before the start of the presidential primary season, there's been a change in the use of negative advertising: It's being used earlier than before.

Republicans in Iowa, which holds caucuses Feb. 12, and New Hampshire, whose primary is Feb. 20, are being deluged with a spate of "anti" messages.

"We are seeing more of it now," said Peverill Squire, a professor of political science at the University of Iowa.

Publisher Malcolm S. Forbes is using TV spots from Our Town Films, New York, to talk about the records of Sen. Bob Dole and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander. The senator from Kansas is taking on Mr. Forbes' flat tax idea in ads themed "Untested leadership, risky ideas" from Stuart Stevens Group, Arlington, Va.

Gov. Alexander is using radio to target Mr. Forbes as "Malcolm Mudslinger" in spots from Murphy, Pintak & Gautier, McLean. And Sen. Phil Gramm (R., Texas) is comparing his positions with Sen. Dole's and President Clinton's.

Only Sen. Richard Lugar (R., Ind.) has held out, hoping his decision against running negative advertising will help separate him from the other candidates.

NO TO NEGATIVE

"We decided early on not to do negative advertising. In a multi-candidate field, we will let other people shake voters loose, and we will be in position to benefit," said Mark Lubbers, Sen. Lugar's campaign manager.

While that position hasn't seemed to significantly benefit Sen. Lugar so far, Mr. Lubbers is hopeful.

"It's every bit as hardball as it can get. You've got people calling each other liars...and there has been outright fabrication of records. Now that everybody is in it, [avoiding negative ads is] a chance to stand out in a clear lane," he said. "I don't remember negative ads going back and forth this early. Normally, it happens just before an election."

So far, Iowa and New Hampshire observers say the negative advertising seems to be having its desired effect: hurting the leaders, most obviously Sen. Dole, while not affecting the sponsor.

"People are used to negative ads," said Stephen Schmidt, another University of Iowa political science professor. "People have toughened up."

The candidates deny their ads are negative, calling them comparative advertising.

ISSUES-DRIVEN?

"We consider it issues-driven," said Gretchen Morgenson, Mr. Forbes' press secretary. This is "a candidacy of ideas. But what [Mr. Forbes] feels very strongly about is pointing out discrepancies between what politicians are talking about now and what they've done in the past."

Rivals say their advertising is aimed at correcting charges coming from Mr. Forbes and others.

"We had to correct the record because Forbes began calling us to task. We could sit here and be defined or retaliate," said Mark Merritt, Gov. Alexander's communications director. "We took the latter course."

Copyright January 1996 Crain Communications Inc.

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