Less than a year before congressional elections, the run-up to the 2002 political season is fraught with new issues-and new questions about whether the tone of political advertising will need to change.
Political ad experts say the Sept. 11 terrorist incidents and the worsening economy have created never-before-seen uncertainties that could significantly alter campaign tactics. Up for debate: whether a kinder, gentler ad climate will prevail.
"Now we have a new issue that we didn't have before Sept. 11, a dominant issue: homeland security and fighting terrorism," said Matthew Dowd, a senior adviser to the Republican National Committee. "You can't avoid the elephant in the room. We don't yet know if it will fill the landscape, but it will have to be dealt with going forward."
Greg Stevens, who handled Sen. John McCain's (R., Ariz.) presidential race in 2000, said, "There is no question that the overarching theme of security will be hugely important." Mr. Stevens, president of political ad agency Stevens Reed Curcio, Alexandria, Va., added, "Before Sept. 11, security wasn't an issue on people's minds. I think now everyone will address it."
Some Democrats believe security will be an issue candidates discuss, but predict it won't decide elections. Instead, they suggest the deciding issue may be the economy.
Frank Greer, president of Greer, Margolis, Mitchell Burns & Associates, Washington, said his firm's polling shows voters are still concerned about issues that were there before Sept. 11, including education and health care, but are now much more worried about the economy.
"Democrats have a message on the economy-helping unemployed workers, raising the minimum wage-that will play strongly," said Mr. Greer, whose firm this month successfully handled the campaigns of Democratic gubernatorial candidates in both New Jersey and Virginia.
Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe agreed: "The economy is the major thing we will talk about, because it's the bread-and-butter issue. What everyone wants to know is, are they going to have a job, can they feed their children, can they educate their children and is there a health care delivery system out there so they don't have to pick between paying their bills and paying their rent?
"The great news for the Democratic Party is we have a track record. We just got off eight years of the greatest prosperity in the history of our country," he added.
Mark Mellman, principal of The Mellman Group and a Democratic pollster, said that while there is concern about terrorism, there is not a lot of difference between the parties on that issue. Instead, the big question of next year is the state of the economy-and which party will get blamed for it.
"Traditionally when the economy is bad the power in the White House pays a price. The real question is who will the public blame? Before Sept. 11, it was George Bush's economy. Since Sept. 11, it's been bin Laden's economy. The question for next November is: Will the economy be perceived as George Bush's or bin Laden's?"
Republicans, however, caution the economy could play several ways. "Before Sept. 11, my view was that Democrats were in the drivers' seat with healthcare and the environment. Those are their issues," said Mr. Stevens. "Now we are into the security issues and the economy, and I can't say what voters will say. We don't know yet what Congress or the President will come up with in an economic stimulus [package], or how it will be perceived or translated to the voters. It could be perceived as positive, if people are feeling patriotic and want to give credit."
While the effect of the issues remains open, the tone of political advertising could be headed for more certain change. Both Democrats and Republicans suggest that negative ads, at least at the moment, seem out of tune with the public's mood. Comparison ads will continue, but need to be handled more carefully, they suggest.
"We believe the tone will be more reasonable because all Americans are pulling together because of the national crisis," said outgoing Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who is Republican National Committee chairman.
Mr. Dowd said tactics have to be altered. "Attacking your opponent will have to be adjusted. It's going to have to be done more carefully, not as strident and not as personal. In the November election, the first candidate to attack lost. ... People want unifiers, healers."
Mr. Greer said Americans are hungry for substance. "People won't put up with personal attacks and cheap distortions. People [now] have a higher standard for political advertising. People will be less forgiving and respond badly to cheap shot advertising."
Mr. Mellman is less certain. He suggests negative ads will remain part of politics. "The people who won and lost this year used negative advertising and you didn't see any backlash."
Mr. Dowd believes the big question next year won't be the economy and the attacks, but how they play among two highly sought-after constituencies: Hispanics and suburban married working women. Both groups have been an increasingly important factor in deciding recent elections, and he said appeals for homeland security will work with both groups.
Democrats, however, suggest that the economy may raise the ire of their traditional constituencies, including union workers. Mr. Greer said that given the economic downturn, Democratic union workers may be angry over their economic lot-and more motivated to go out and vote.