Presidential ad duels go easy on the negative

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It seems impossible, but only four years after history's most negative presidential ad campaign, the 2000 race is progressing with an undeniable absence of mudslinging.

With the political season starting early because of the New Hampshire primary's move to Feb. 1, the campaign has seen almost none of the negative attacks rampant when Steve Forbes, Lamar Alexander and others moved to tear down front-runner Bob Dole -- and each other -- in '96.

"It's remarkable, the difference," said Stuart Stevens, a political ad consultant who worked on Mr. Dole's campaign four years ago and now toils for Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

OUTSIDERS ONLY

Little more than half a dozen ads for the 2000 race can be characterized as even remotely negative -- and half of those came from outside groups rather than the presidential candidates themselves.

Americans for Tax Reform, for example, is airing a New Hampshire TV ad claiming Sen. John McCain is "the only Republican candidate approved by the liberal New York Times. Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Big Labor all endorse his top legislative priority." The spot was created by Dakota American Communications, Arlington, Va.

In November, the Republican Leadership Council warned Mr. Forbes not to go negative.

"When Steve Forbes ran for president last time, I kind of liked him," a voter says in the spot from Jamestown Associates, Trenton, N.J. "But then he spent all his money tearing down his opponents. He hurt the Republican Party . . . Someone needs to tell Steve Forbes that if he doesn't have anything nice to say, don't say it at all."

A third spot, from the Sierra Club, took on Gov. Bush's Texas environmental record.

BUSH TAX PLAN ASSAILED

The most direct comparison spot of the campaign, a 60-second radio ad for Mr. Forbes from William Eisner & Associates, Hales Corners, Wis., began running last week. In it, an announcer quotes a Manchester (N.H.) Union Leader editorial and columnist Bob Novak chastising Gov. Bush's tax plan.

"On taxes, to make your vote count there is only one choice, Steve Forbes for president," says the ad.

The lack of negative ads this time is surprising because there is no indication that they have lost their sway.

"Everyone always says they don't like it, but negative ads move voters," said Dick Bennett, president of American Research Group and a pollster based in New Hampshire.

Several campaigns prepared negative ads but didn't run them, while presidential candidates who aren't using ads to criticize each other are sniping at each other in debates and public forums.

Former Sen. Bill Bradley, in appearances with Vice President Al Gore, has accused Mr. Gore of misrepresenting his positions and challenged Mr. Gore's healthcare proposals -- but never in ads.

Sen. Bradley has "a positive vision he wants to lay out for the country," said Tony Wyche, Sen. Bradley's deputy press secretary.

Likewise, Gov. Bush has recently used some debates, rather than paid media, to criticize Sen. McCain's stance on campaign reform.

SIMILAR REFRAINS

"I think [Gov. Bush] has made a decision that he wants to maintain integrity and support and be a positive force in the party," said Mark McKinnon, head of Gov. Bush's Maverick Media ad team.

A similar refrain is also heard from the McCain camp.

"From the first day [Sen. McCain] said he wanted to run a positive campaign," said his press secretary, Nancy Ives.

Even Mr. Forbes, who saw his heavy negative ads four years ago successfully cut Mr. Dole's lead, has held back this year. Political observers and other candidates suggest Mr. Forbes is loath to rekindle the negative impact of his attack ads on his own campaign.

Forbes campaign manager Bill Dal Col, however, maintains that this year Mr. Forbes simply comes into the campaign with fewer rivals and a need to reintroduce himself.

"It's just a different environment. The front-runner [Gov. Bush] has been doing a good enough job to expose his weaknesses on issues."

Consultant Mr. Bennett explains the absence of negativity by noting that Gov. Bush and Vice President Gore may have been boxed in by events.

`A TRUE HERO'

"How do you go negative on John McCain, who is a true [war] hero?" he said. "On the Democratic side you have Bradley talking about his campaign as a `campaign of ideas.' The minute Gore goes after him, it will hurt Gore."

Few campaign officials and observers predict the advertising high road will last. With the Iowa caucus Jan. 24 and the New Hampshire primary not long behind, pressure will be building.

"Somebody is going to wake up soon and say, `I'm going to lose and I'm not going to allow that. I can't allow the election to be defined on a coin toss,' " said Mr. Bennett.

Mr. Gore's press secretary, Chris Lehane, in fact, hints advertising attacks may not be far away.

Mr. Gore "will challenge Sen. Bradley on ideas that are flawed," he said. "The Gore campaign will continue to challenge those ideas and will use a variety of outlets to do that."

"You will definitely see compare and contrast ads," predicts Mr. Dal Col of the Forbes' campaign. "Will we do it? Probably no, but we reserve the right to do it."

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