Storm of negative ads gives Forbes chills

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Candidate tries higher road; others slam Buchanan

Steve Forbes has finally learned, perhaps too late, the golden rule of political advertising--promote yourself before doing anything negative unto others. But the blitz of negative messages from others continued unabated here as primary day neared.

In fact, a nationally televised debate late last week between the Republican presidential hopefuls was dominated by arguments about who's slinging the most mud in ads.


The change last week: Commentator Pat Buchanan came into rivals' sights.

Despite the obvious negative reaction from voters to the extent of so-called "comparison" advertising--read: negative--last week the barrage was primarily from candidates Bob Dole and Lamar Alexander.

In the latest work from Stuart Stevens Group, Alexandria, Va., Sen. Dole called Mr. Buchanan "too extreme." Gov. Alexander was running a spot from Murphy Pintak & Gautier, McLean, Va., that starts out, "Bob Dole is a Washington insider for 35 years. Steve Forbes is a Wall Street insider his entire life. There's a better choice."

Mr. Forbes previously had been the most frequent dispenser of negative ads, using them as the greatest part of his media message in the final weeks before the Iowa caucus and in New Hampshire and Arizona as late as Feb. 13. But after an unexpectedly poor showing in Iowa and amid declining poll numbers in New Hampshire, he suddenly reversed course.


On Feb. 14, the anti-Dole and Alexander messages were replaced with messages describing Mr. Forbes' record of accomplishments and featuring him speaking to the camera.

On the stump, a chastened Mr. Forbes admitted the error of his ways three times in a single day--including in response to an 11-year-old's question.

"Clearly, we spent too much time stressing the records of our opponents," Mr. Forbes told Advertising Age at a campaign stop in Milford, N.H. "I want to now concentrate on what I stand for, how I think America can move ahead to make these reforms.

"That's the lesson I learned. In business, politics... mistakes can be made; I am moving forward."

Campaign Manager Bill Dal Col declined to call the negative ads a mistake.


"We looked at where we stand and our best strength is Steve discussing the issues," Mr. Dal Col said. "You look at your campaign along the way and [address] the way you can make adjustments."

Mr. Forbes' reversal was largely his alone. Sen. Dole's campaign, which started anti-Buchanan messages Feb. 14, was still running anti-Forbes messages as well and there were no plans to stop.

Mr. Stevens defended Sen. Dole's "comparative" advertising, saying the problem isn't that type of advertising but Mr. Forbes' extreme use of the tactic.

"It is rare that anyone goes so negative so quickly. The degree to which he attacked Sen. Dole was over the top," he said.

"The campaign is like a debate. You lay out your case about why your candidate is right and the other person is wrong."

Copyright February 1996 Crain Communications Inc.

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