Two years ago, the overuse of attack ads helped to wreck the presidential ambitions of publisher Steve Forbes, despite heavy spending. So some observers had expected the tactic to wane.
No such luck.
Trying perhaps to rally a public bored with politics after one too many President Clinton/Monica Lewinsky/Ken Starr revelations, candidate after candidate is turning inward -- and negative. Even the political parties are targeting candidates' opponents with their media budgets designated for "issues."
"I don't see any improvement in the discourse," said Paul Taylor, executive director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, a group pushing the use of free media time to discuss political issues. "We have peace and prosperity. . . . What tends to fill the vacuum is the `You are a liar,' `No, you are a liar.' . . . The public watches with one eye and listens with one ear."
NEW YORK'S EXAMPLE
The charges and countercharges -- and the way they are made in advertising -- vary. Among the strongest:
* In New York, both incumbent Republican Sen. Alfonse D'Amato and his Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Charles Schumer, have run their campaigns almost totally on negative ads. One Schumer ad from Morris Carrick & Guma, New York, states: "D'Amato's lying about Chuck Schumer again . . . Too many lies for too long."
One D'Amato advertisement produced by Chris Mattola & Associates, Philadelphia, and Jamestown Associates, Princeton, N.J., features former New York Democratic Mayor Ed Koch saying, "Tough campaigning is one thing but . . . you've gone over the edge. Chuck, stop it."
Another D'Amato ad suggests Mr. Schumer votes more for foreign aid than local aid. "If you live in Mongolia, Schumer's your man. If you live in New York, Al D'Amato is there for you."
* In Maryland, Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening seeks re-election in a rematch of his fight against Ellen Sauerbrey four years ago. His ads accuse her of being a sore loser. "She's back" reads the screen in one TV commercial from Shrum Devine Donilon, Washington.
Ads also "accuse" Ms. Sauerbrey of taking money from the National Rifle Association.
* In Illinois, one ad for the Republican U.S. Senate candidate, banking heir Peter Fitzgerald, says Democrat Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun "took her own mother's $28,750 inheritance, cashed the check and put it in her own account. . . . Don't let her get away with more lies."
A more recent commercial cites an Internal Revenue Service examination of Sen. Moseley-Braun's personal use of campaign funds.
Sen. Moseley-Braun used one of her own ads to apologize to voters for her earlier actions, including financial dealings, but more recently has attacked Mr. Fitzgerald's stance on handguns and abortion, among other issues. "Whose side is he on?" one of her ads says.
* In Kentucky, the Democratic Party ran an ad targeting Republican Rep. Jim Bunning in his fight with Rep. Scotty Baesler for the open U.S. Senate seat. "It's pocket change for the billionaire, but Congressman Jim Bunning voted against a 90-cent increase in the minimum wage . . . Yet Bunning votes for a tax loophole that allows billionaires to renounce their U.S. citizenship to avoid paying U.S. taxes."
* In North Carolina, GOP U.S. Sen. Lauch Faircloth is in a tough re-election battle against attorney John Edwards, and he has run spots featuring Mr. Edwards' comments in a lawyer's forum urging other lawyers to "blow up" the net worth of defendants.
The ad from Alex Castellanos National Media, Alexandria, Va., states: "Who teaches other lawyers how to stretch the truth? Meet personal injury lawyer John Edwards . . . Newspapers say he has the lawyer's habit of stretching the truth."
An ad for Mr. Edwards from Squier Knapp Ochs Dunn, Washington, highlights Sen. Faircloth's attendance record in Congress and features film footage of a desk with Sen. Faircloth's nameplate, a framed picture of a pig and a ringing phone. No one is sitting in the chair or answering the phone.
NEGATIVE ADS NECESSARY?
Negative advertising in North Carolina inspired one of the more unusual incidents in the '98 election, when Sen. Faircloth's chief of staff was taped suggesting to insurance executives that negative ads were necessary to counter the intellectual level of voters.
The aide said negative ads are needed "because the average person watching television, who does not have your intellect -- the average person doesn't know what's going on in the real world. They are sitting there watching Oprah and what they see on television they believe."
Groups who watch political ads report that the number of comparative ads is rising.
"We are seeing a lot of comparison advertising this time around," said Douglas Rivlin, Washington director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center.
"[Ad] consultants are starting to see that making a case for your candidate while making a case against the other is more effective," he said. This is "still getting the message across that there is something to vote against."