There's the almost-adulterer against the convicted perjurer in Virginia; the two sons of a one-term president looking to begin their elected political careers as governors; a possible chink in the armor of a 32-year Senate veteran; and the sister of Jerry Brown trying to win the gubernatorial seat once held by both her father and brother.
And then there's the advertising. How nasty will it get? Very. How much will there be? Lots. And there are subplots there, too.
One media company is doing advertising for four of the top 10 races selected by Advertising Age. And, proving that politicalmemories are not long, the three original members of President Bush's ill-fated ad team of 1994 are involved in key races.
Here are the 10 races where advertising will be key. All told, about $1 billion will be spent on political advertising this year, a record likely to endure at least until the next elections.
Imagine Coke and Pepsi unleashing their entire ad budgets in a six-week explosion, to settle in an all-or-nothing media fight who's the least objectionable soft drink in town.
Well, that's pretty much what the voters of Virginia will watch unravel this fall in an election to end 'em all, the one that pits one former Marine, Democratic Sen. Chuck Robb, against another, Republican Oliver North. The two are expected to raise and spend $25 million or more. Sen. Robb, once considered prime timber for national office, is, by his own admission, an almost-but-not-quite adulterer. Lt. Col. North, the brains behind the Iran-Contra scandal, was convicted of lying to the Senate he now hungers to join.
Messrs. North and Robb also are serving as fodder for the unlikely independent challenge of Marshall Coleman, the Republican former attorney general who couldn't stomach the idea of a Sen. North. So last week Mr. Coleman ripped into both foes, charging Sen. Robb with frequenting parties where "they take refreshment through their noses" and Col. North of "lyin', destroyin' evidence, taking a few goodies on the side."
What a country!
This race features the scion of a well-known family of millionaires, divorced from his attractive blond wife, who eschews his given name for a friendlier moniker. And his opponent is Sen. Ted Kennedy.
Republican Willard "Mitt" Romney is considered the strongest threat ever to end the 32-year Senate career of Sen. Kennedy. The senator began TV advertising in July, hitting the Boston and Springfield markets with a spot touting his legislative record and constituent service. Mr. Romney, son of former Michigan Gov. George Romney, took to the airwaves at about the same time with a spot emphasizing "the change we need." Enough said.
Democrat Paul Sarbanes began his re-election campaign with a TV spot touting the respected but low-profile senator's successful fight for legislation protecting Maryland's eastern shore. Not exactly big picture stuff. His opponent, William Brock, has a resume that includes former U.S. senator from Tennessee, secretary of labor under Ronald Reagan and former chairman of the Republican National Committee. He's also battling an image problem-outsider. His early TV is classic warm and fuzzy but undoubtedly will heat up.
It's all big in Texas, from Gov. Ann Richards' hair and braggadocio to George W. Bush's blood lines and his ambition to vault into the statehouse. Gov. Richards began her TV campaign with a spot showing her talking about a teen curfew, while Mr. Bush's initial effort railed against the rise in crime.
It could get nasty, with Gov. Richards' ads expected to concentrate on her track record and Mr. Bush's absence of anything except a family history, while he would undoubtedly prefer to focus on crime.
New York Governor
Imagine Mario Cuomo, the Democrat who would/wouldn't be president, slugging it out in a bitter re-election battle against Republican state Sen. George Pataki. Both sides began their advertising with customary nice-nice spots about themselves, then quickly turned on each other. Sen. Pataki went after the 12-year incumbent as "too liberal for too long" while Gov. Cuomo a week ago turned the tables with ads pointing out inaccuracies in the Pataki spots.
Jeb Bush, the 41-year-old son of President Bush, is expected to begin his general election TV campaign this week. It might start off nice, but look for a quick turnaround thanks to a media consultancy that believes in hitting the opponent hard, often and not always above belt level. A major strength is his Hispanic wife, but he lost a major issue when Democrat Gov. Lawton Chiles prevailed on the White House to stem the latest wave of Cuban immigrants.
The Republican primary probably offered a taste of what Mr. Bush can expect in the general election-an attack ad, jointly sponsored by his two rivals, that blasted the character and business history of Mr. Bush. It included the line: "Jeb Bush. He thinks he's special. Do you?"
It's not easy being green; just ask Rep. Mike Huffington, a Republican whose personal fortune has allowed him to pour millions into a bid to unseat incumbent Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and attracted considerable criticism. As of last week his campaign had aired 17 different TV spots, including a couple by Sig Rogich, a former Las Vegas adman whose campaign work for George Bush in 1988 earned him an ambassadorship to Iceland. Sen. Feinstein is the perfect opponent to fight fire with fire; she and her husband are multimillionaires.
In 1991, 68-year-old Harris Wofford stunned a national audience by winning a special Senate election. A political novice, the Democrat campaigned on the need for healthcare reform, and the people (including James Carville) who managed his campaign and its advertising were the same ones who went on to handle President Clinton's 1992 campaign. Oh, how the times have changed. Three years later, Sen. Wofford trails a vibrant young Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Rick Santorum. This race is shaping up as an early referendum on national healthcare reform, and the early results are not encouraging for Sen. Wofford or President Clinton.
Joel Hyatt is the son-in-law of retiring Democratic Sen. Howard Metzenbaum. Mr. Hyatt is media savvy, having starred in many commercials for his national law practice, Hyatt Legal Services.
But even with those built-in advantages, the Democrat stumbled early and hasn't recovered. Recent polls show him trailing by a double-digit margin. And as of last week, he still hadn't aired any TV spots for the general election and can only hope his campaign fares better than did his legal practice, which filed for bankruptcy protection.
His Republican opponent, Mike DeWine, is a former county prosecutor and Ohio lieutenant governor, and his early TV ads played to his strength-crime. This is one of those longtime Democratic seats that looks headed for the GOP unless Mr. Hyatt puts on a mighty convincing closing argument.
Only a few months ago, incumbent Republican Pete Wilson was battered by a faltering state economy, crime and the legacy of several natural disasters, and trailed his opponent by up to 20 points in the polls.
Today he's running ahead of state Treasurer Kathleen Brown and not looking back. The big differences have been the state's economic recovery and Ms. Brown's failure to define herself. Gov. Wilson also seized the initiative on the state's trouble with illegal aliens, airing just last week a TV spot showing migrants running from border patrol agents. Between them, they will have about $27 million to spend on ads.
Both camps are worried about how much commercial time will be available with the O.J. Simpson murder trial. A judge turned down a request by both candidates to recess the trial a few days before the election.