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The Republican presidential race enters the first turn this week with the candidates facing a hard choice: advertise against rivals and risk voters' wrath or don't and risk seeing Pat Buchanan advance.

Amid strong indications that heavy negative advertising by Steve Forbes sensitized both the media and voters to negative advertising as an issue very early in the primary process, New Hampshire's unexpected closeness has created a quandary for candidates about the direction ahead.


"Clearly, there is an environment out there where being tagged as negative advertiser labels you as a politician and leaves a sour taste," said Alex Castellanos, a partner in National Media Corp., Alexandria, Va., and the ad person behind Texas Sen. Phil Gram, who has dropped out of the race. "There is a price now, and it is substantial.

"The problem is once you get started, it's hard to stop."

The choice ahead is especially critical for Sen. Bob Dole (R., Kan.), who, faced with Mr. Forbes' challenge, gambled that advertising and heavy spending early would cinch the nomination before spending limits kicked in.

As of Jan. 31, Sen. Dole had spent $27 million of the $36 million or so allowed each candidate who accepted matching funds for the presidential primary season.

Rivals say that after the New Hampshire's Feb. 20 primary, Sen. Dole has only about $6 million left for the rest of the primary run, with a number of big states coming, including New York on March 7 and California March 26.


Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander and Mr. Buchanan are in much better shape. Mr. Forbes, who decided not to accept matching funds, doesn't have to worry about spending limits.

The narrowness of the vote in the Granite State offers some unusual prospective scenarios.

Usually, a candidate who does poorly fades away, unable to raise money for ads or withstand the bandwagon effect of the front-runner. But without a clear front-runner, Mr. Forbes can stay in and use his wealth to advertise in later states at levels that rivals may have difficulty matching.

There are some indications that might happen. The Forbes campaign confirmed it had bought time in New York and will be advertising in the state starting this week, and that the money advantage is a factor in future strategy. Gov. Alexander is not on the New York ballot.

Mr. Buchanan's success in New Hampshire seemed to stem from an ad message warning that U.S. jobs were heading abroad, plus support from GOP conservatives. Now, rivals face some decisions on how to confront him.

Mr. Buchanan's long days of column writing and taking controversial positions could open the door to attack ads from rivals, but they'd better do it carefully. In New Hampshire, polls showed that Sen. Dole's closing ad blasts at Mr. Buchanan and Gov. Alexander hurt his image.


An expert in attack advertising said last week the presidential candidates could avoid voter reaction by attacking carefully-sticking clearly to comparing themselves with rivals on issues.

"They are not penalized if attack focuses fairly on issue differences that matter," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania and author of "Dirty Politics."

"It's a fascinating race that won't end till it's over," said Jay Townsend, Mr. Buchanan's ad person and president of the Townsend Group in Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y. Worries about negative advertising "didn't bother Bob Dole in New Hampshire."

"It took Steve Forbes to give negative advertising a bad name. He stayed too long on the negative," Mr. Castellanos said. "If he had laid the foundation, it would have been more credible."

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