Originally created 10/25/98

TV ads vicious as ever



ATLANTA -- Jamie Brush's Columbia County middle school class was talking about this year's elections, but the students were having a little trouble with some of the contestants.

"Nobody knew much about Mitch Skandalakis, Mark Taylor, or even Guy Millner," said Jamie's husband, state Sen. Joey Brush.

"When she mentioned Roy Barnes, two girls said, `Oh, he's too liberal for Georgia."'

Which proves an old political adage.

"If you say something enough times, people get bored to death with it, they don't like it, but it hits home," said Mr. Brush, a supporter of Mr. Barnes' Republican gubernatorial rival, Mr. Millner.

If Georgians got all of their campaign news from TV commercials, they might be convinced the 1998 governor's race is between a liberal, criminal-loving trial lawyer who wants to end HOPE scholarships (Mr. Barnes) and a lying campaign cheat and tax dodger who also hates HOPE scholarships (Mr. Millner).

In the lieutenant governor's race, they'd figure they had another HOPE killer (Mr. Skandalakis) against a cocaine addict who kowtows to homosexuals (Mr. Taylor).

Statewide candidates still participate in forums, plant yard signs and visit local diners. But more than ever, TV commercials are the thing, and the mud-o-meter has gone off the charts as candidates spend millions of dollars persuading voters why not to vote for their opponents.

"Somebody told me the governor's race will be won by the person they think is less evil," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Clay, R-Marietta, an unsuccessful lieutenant governor candidate this year. "The sad reality is we see negative ads because they work. Until the voting public shows they don't like it by voting against it, that's what we'll see.

Rick Dent, a consultant for statewide Democratic and Republican candidates this year, argued that the ads aren't any more negative, just more personal.

"It's perfectly fair to have a hard-hitting ad campaign that addresses the candidate's stand and record," said Mr. Dent of NewFields Communications in Atlanta. "Some of the things in Georgia seem to go out on a limb and are very personal.

"People react to them (negative ads), and if they're done well -- and that means with documentation and headlines -- people think they are credible. If they are done poorly, they may backfire."

Mr. Barnes started out his campaign asking opponents to sign a pledge vowing they wouldn't use negative ads.

That lasted until Mr. Barnes appeared to be taking a lead in the Democratic primary race, and his opponents piled on, accusing him of representing child molesters in court and voting against tough crime laws.

The governor's primary was nothing compared to the runoffs for lieutenant governor, where viewers were reminded that Mr. Taylor once used cocaine and that Republican contender Clint Day had several tax liens.

Mr. Skandalakis was accused of being a desperate, tax-raising ethics violator who used campaign money for massages and a Las Vegas trip. And that was all in one ad.

Meanwhile, Mr. Millner waited only a few days after winning the GOP gubernatorial primary to begin taking shots at Mr. Barnes' voting record.

"The amount of negative advertising has to be far more because Millner began pounding away on Barnes as being too liberal for Georgia and not willing to lock up prisoners in July," said University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock.

Mr. Millner has spent millions of dollars on TV advertising since then, most of it attacking Mr. Barnes.

Mr. Barnes, a Mableton state lawmaker and lawyer, has been in the General Assembly more than 20 years, and the thousands of votes he has taken since being elected to the Legislature in 1975 have been prime fodder.

Mr. Millner's basic theme has been that Mr. Barnes is "too liberal for Georgia."

Mr. Barnes says Mr. Millner's reading of his record is distorted, as have several newspapers that examined the commercials. Even some Republican lawmakers say Mr. Barnes' overall voting record is conservative.

But his record has left him open to hard-hitting ads.

For instance, Mr. Millner recently began running commercials saying Mr. Barnes would kill the HOPE college scholarship program. Millner officials said the ad was in response to a Barnes commercial saying their candidate would do the same.

Mr. Barnes opposed the lottery when he ran for governor in 1990. The father of the Georgia lottery, Gov. Zell Miller, has endorsed Mr. Barnes, and the candidate helped write a proposed constitutional amendment to protect HOPE scholarship funding from future legislators.

Mr. Barnes struck back by reminding voters Mr. Millner was hit with the largest ethics fine in Georgia history and paid no income taxes in 1991 despite being a multimillionaire.

Still, in the past few weeks, the lieutenant governor candidates have eclipsed Mr. Barnes and Mr. Millner.

Mr. Taylor accused Mr. Skandalakis of wanting to do away with HOPE scholarships because he voiced opposition to one of the lottery games that helps pay for the program.

That was only a prelude to what pundits are dubbing the nastiest commercial of the campaign season.

It depicts a male patient shuffling down a hospital corridor with an announcer saying, "Mark Taylor has some more problems to clear up before he runs for any office."

"Taylor, of course, has admitted he had problems years ago," the announcer continues as the camera shows the outside of a rehabilitation hospital. The picture switches again to the man in the robe.

"And we all wish those problems had been cured," the announcer says.

Mr. Taylor denies he uses drugs or ever needed rehab, and has sued Mr. Skandalakis for libel and slander.

Mr. Skandalakis called it a byproduct of the rough-and-tumble world of two-party politics.

"It's all politics, folks," he said at a forum last week. "Sometimes we cross the line."

"Mr. Skandalakis is just the worst we have to offer. He is a serial slanderer," Mr. Taylor retorted.

Mr. Clay, who faced Mr. Skandalakis in the Republican primary, said the commercial "pushes the envelope" of how far candidates will go in attacking opponents.

"If he wins, it sets a precedent for how you get there."

One reason voters are seeing so much advertising is that there is more money than ever in the top statewide races.

By election time Nov. 3, Mr. Millner, Mr. Barnes, Mr. Skandalakis and Mr. Taylor together likely will have spent at least $25 million to $30 million, a large chunk of it on TV.

Another reason is the long-held political theory that negative advertising suppresses voter turnout, providing an advantage to the candidate with the more committed base.

"It tends to turn off people who are only marginally committed," Dr. Bullock said.

It can have the reverse impact as well. Democrats are hoping that Republican ads criticizing the black-run city of Atlanta government will energize the African-American community in Georgia.

Most important, negative commercials often are effective because many voters form their impressions of candidates from television ads, especially those run over and over.

"`Soft on crime, too liberal for Georgia' -- Guy Millner is a rich guy trying to buy the office. That is the image people vote on," Mr. Clay said.

James Salzer is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.