IT'S political mud-wrestling time again. Welcome to the 1996 presidential campaign, which already looks like a down-and-dirty affair, played with attack ads and instant retorts. Three months before the official campaign for the general election actually gets under way, political observers have been astonished by the onslaught of confrontational campaigning between President Bill Clinton and Republican challenger Bob Dole.
What one Democratic Party official described as a "head-to-head combat" has intensified by the so-called rapid-response strategy that is well-honed by both parties, with the White House at times responding to Dole's speeches even before they are delivered.
The rapid-fire charge and countercharge approach is posing a problem for the press, whose coverage of the race runs the risk of manipulation by political spin doctors operating high-speed technology.
Doug Bailey, a Republican Party consultant and president of the American Political Network, which publishes a daily wrap-up of political coverage nationwide, calls it "scorched earth politics". "At this point, both political camps are targeting the press very effectively," Bailey says. "These ads become news stories and are channelled to a public which otherwise would probably pay little attention. Maybe the press ought to question whether their reaction makes them political puppets." Singled out by political analysts as ominous examples of what can be expected are two recent television commercials. In one, called 'Empty', Dole's resignation from the Senate to become a full-time campaigner is portrayed by the Democrats as a quitter's act. A narrator describes it in the 30-second ad as "quitting, giving up, leaving behind the gridlock he helped create".
In the other ad, 'Stripes', from the Republican side, Clinton is accused of being a commander-in-chief without military experience, hiding behind his titular position and using a veterans' relief act to delay the sexual harassment lawsuit slapped by Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state worker, on him.
What do these ads portend for the 1996 presidential campaign? Will this year go down as the worst since the advent of the television era? Can voters do anything at all to rise above this onslaught of insults?
"Both ads are unfair," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. "To suggest that Dole is a quitter is unsustainable and insulting," she adds. "And the anti-Clinton ad took a minor point in a legal brief to infer he has done something illegal in office, when there is no evidence of it."
Jamieson has urged "the press and the pundits" to take a stand against negative political strategy instead of "licensing it by accepting such ads as the first volley of an onslaught that will get worse". She also warns of the public backlash to negative campaigning, noting that during the primary season, exit polls showed a third of voters objected to it. "The voters are not stupid, but they need guidance, and the press has a responsibility to give it," she notes.
David Eichenbaum, communications director of the Democratic National Committee, insists that the Democrats are just trying to "stay on the issues and not get personally nasty" in their ads. Controversial commercials, he admits, "speed up the head-to-head combat. We are seeing desperation politics here on the part of the Republicans".
But Mary Crawford, press secretary of the Republican National Committee, contends that the 'Stripes' ad made a "legitimate point" about Clinton, compared with the "outrageous" suggestion that Dole was a quitter. "There have been signals from the White House for some time that this will be the nastiest campaign in history, and while we want to argue issues, we are not going to let them get away with playing fast and loose with facts, as was the case in the ad attacking Dole," she says.
In a recent exchange with reporters, Mike McCurry, White House press secretary, conceded that the 'quitter' ad about Dole represented Democratic reaction to the 'Stripes' ad about the president. McCurry did not deny that the Dole attack ad should be seen as a signal that the Democrats would strike back hard at attacks.
Says Washington political consultant Lyn Nofziger, who was an aide to Ronald Reagan: "Whether an ad is effective or vicious depends on your political viewpoint. Dirt can be helpful."
Despite protests to the contrary, Dole and his campaign managers do want to make Clinton's character an issue, believing they can capitalise on lingering questions about his faithfulness as a husband, his draft record during the Vietnam War and his actions in office. Frustrated at Clinton's moves this year to adopt such popular Republican themes as balancing the budget, reforming welfare and cutting taxes, Dole has sought to use those shifts as a way of moving the debate back to Clinton's character.
"I will stand for historic change rooted in unchanging principles," Dole said recently. "Bill Clinton will stand for, well, whatever it is he stands for at the moment."
Ann Lewis, deputy manager of Clinton's campaign, condemns Dole's attack: "Having tried to talk issues out on the road and having found that it didn't work, he escalates his negative campaign. Personal negative campaigning is no substitute for serious, issue-based, visionary politics."
There's nothing new about negative politics, says Larry Sabato, professor of government at the University of Virginia. In his new book,Dirty Little Secrets, which focuses on corruption in American politics, Sabato recalls that misuse of telephone polling goes back a long way. In Richard Nixon's first successful run for Congress in 1946 against Democratic incumbent Jerry Voorhis, Democratic voters in California reported receiving telephone calls asking if they knew their Congressman was a communist. A Nixon campaign worker later admitted participating in a telephone bank where the attack calls were made.
The power of negative politics was demonstrated dramatically in the 1964 presidential campaign in the famous 'Daisy' television ad cooked up by the strategists of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who later won a landslide election against hawkish conservative Republican Barry Goldwater. The ad showed an angelic child picking petals off a daisy. A mushroom cloud engulfed the last petal and the child, suggesting a vote for Goldwater risked nuclear war.
"That ad only ran once before it was pulled out, but the media played the hell out of it and nobody ever forgot it," Bailey recalls. Bailey suggests that currently, both presidential campaigns feel the way to win is to keep a hard focus on the opponent.
"The Republicans believe that if Dole wins, it will be because of Clinton's character problems, and the Democrats think they will win as long as Dole looks old and out of step," he said. "Trouble is, this approach may reinforce the already existing anti-politics sentiment among the public."
Around the nation, there is a small but growing swell of grassroots groups hoping to prod politicians at all levels to stay positive in their runs for office. The groups acknowledge that they cannot do much about the tone of presidential campaigns at this point, but hope that changes in local and state politicking will eventually percolate to the top.
"You're not going to change politics nationally until you change politics locally with more and more communities across the country saying enough is enough," said Marlene Hundley, president of the Falls Church League of Women Voters.
Many of these grassroots groups are concerned that negative political campaigns and attack ads push moderate and independent voters out of politics, give special interest organisations more power, generate even more public cynicism, and make it harder to attract quality candidates.
"And once elected, it is harder for them to move into the cooperative mode because of what's been said during the campaign," said Nancy Koch, coordinator of the Rochester, New York-based Project Positive Campaign.
A popular strategy for converting voter frustration into positive action is to form coalitions with other non-partisan groups. The idea is to create a broad-based public voice in favour of issue-oriented campaigns and against mudslinging. Another tactic is to get candidates to be accountable for their campaigns and not blame controversial statements on their aides. "If you can't stand up to your own campaign people," Koch said, "then how are you going to stand up to other people when you're elected?"
League of Women Voters chapters across the country are among the most active community groups trying to convince politicians to run positive campaigns.
Besides trying to get the news media to focus on issues instead of personalities and attacks, the groups also want candidates to pledge accountability for their TV and radio ads by making sure their own picture and voice is in 50 per cent of the commercials. That way, any negative campaigning would be directly linked to candidates who make the charges, rather than be obscured by an anonymous narrator.