An Iowa TV director previews a John Edwards ad.

Air assault

Politics | Candidates are about to unleash a slew of negative ads, but is that really all bad?

Issue: "Daniel of the Year," Dec. 15, 2007

When Americans watch television this Christmas season, they can expect a few familiar standards: a dancing Bing Crosby, a tearful Jimmy Stewart, and a repentant Charlie Brown. In New Hampshire and Iowa, television viewers can also expect depictions of a flip-flopping Mitt Romney and a finger-pointing Hillary Clinton.

Crosby, Stewart, and Brown come courtesy of classic holiday films, but Romney and Clinton come courtesy of negative political ads aimed at jarring voters during the last four weeks before the presidential primaries begin.

Negative ads are staples of presidential contests, but timing is everything this year: With the first caucus in Iowa moved up to Jan. 3-nearly two weeks earlier than usual-the primary season collides with the Christmas season, leaving some wondering how to jab their opponents without alienating voters focused more on presents than politics.

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Steve McMahon, a Democratic strategist who ran Howard Dean's presidential advertising campaign in 2003 and 2004, summed up the Christmas quandary: "Attack ads don't necessarily blend well with Santa Claus and holiday cheer."

But campaigns and independent groups depend on negative ads to draw contrasts between candidates that glowing ads with quaint scenes of family gatherings don't accomplish. They draw those contrasts most sharply in the final weeks before voters make up their minds.

Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson threw down the gauntlet at the CNN/YouTube debate in St. Petersburg, Fla., one week after Thanksgiving. Each of the eight candidates at the debate aired a 30-second campaign commercial during the event.

Only Thompson's ad directly pointed fingers. The spot began with a single phrase on the screen: "What were some saying during the Republican Revolution?" A clip followed of Romney declaring: "I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country. I believe since Roe v. Wade has been the law for 20 years we should sustain and support it."

Then came a clip of Republican candidate Mike Huckabee saying: "Others have suggested a surcharge on the income tax. That's acceptable. I'm fine with that. Others have suggested perhaps a sales tax. That's fine."

The ad aimed for weak spots, but Huckabee anticipated criticism of his fiscal policies. The candidate quickly responded with a slew of statistics about his record during 11 years as governor of Arkansas: "I cut 90 taxes. . . . The income tax remained exactly what it was. The sales tax is one penny higher. But I did do a number of tax cuts that helped a lot of people all over the place."

Romney didn't flinch either. Instead, the candidate used Thompson's ad to highlight his conversion to a pro-life position: "On abortion I was wrong . . . I'm proud to be pro-life. I'm not going to be apologizing for becoming pro-life."

Less than a week later, Romney faced negative ads from pro-abortion Republicans who believe he should apologize to them. The Republican Majority for Choice rolled out the first negative campaign ads on stations in Iowa and New Hampshire in early December.

The independent, pro-abortion group spent $100,000 to air 30-second advertising spots in the early primary states featuring a photo of Romney that flips back and forth across the screen. A narrator tells viewers that Romney has changed his position on abortion three times since 1994 and includes clips of the Republican candidate offering both pro-abortion and pro-life views.

The ad ends with the narrator encouraging pro-abortion Republicans to ask the pro-life Romney: "Flip-flop just one more time-and stay there."

John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, told WORLD that though the Romney ad doesn't contain new information, it does force Romney to stay on the defense. It also tests Romney's ability to deliver a consistent response to an issue he constantly confronts. So far, he's succeeding, says Geer: "He's developed a story line."

Romney's opponents also hope bringing up the candidate's pro-abortion past will plant doubt about whether his conversion to a pro-life position was politically motivated. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has said Romney's biggest hurdle is "convincing Republicans he has principled positions on moral issues."

Republican candidates have been slow to run negative ads against each other, but Geer says they are likely preparing. Based on the aggressive tones in recent debates, he says, "They're sharpening their knives."

Meanwhile, Republicans have been quicker to run ads against Democratic opponents, especially Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. McCain's campaign created an ad lambasting Clinton for earmarking $1 million in federal funds for a museum commemorating the Woodstock music festival in New York. (Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., successfully led an effort to squash the earmark.)


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