Candidates revert to attack tactics

Posted: Sunday, October 27, 2002

WASHINGTON-- Candidates of both parties are evoking old stereotypes in the midterm election homestretch, with Republicans depicting Democrats as ever ready to raise taxes and Democrats portraying Republicans as poised to raid Social Security.

In a New Hampshire ad, GOP Senate candidate Rep. John Sununu becomes a shady cartoon character with a beard, sunglasses and ''hiding something. ... He wants to privatize Social Security.'' In Florida, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Bill McBride's spending proposals ''can only be fulfilled with new taxes,'' perhaps even requiring a state income tax, suggest ads by Florida's Gov. Jeb Bush.

Republican Elizabeth Dole, a onetime Red Cross president, would ''wreck'' Social Security if elected to the Senate, her Democratic opponent, former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles, suggests in North Carolina. Steve Pearce, a GOP House candidate in New Mexico, stands accused by Democrats of wanting to take government benefit payments from widows and orphans.

In midterm races around the country, such attacks are elbowing aside issues such as potential war with Iraq, terrorism and the general economy. Political professionals suggest it's partly because nothing seems to have captured the public's passion as the Nov. 5 elections draw near -- and such attacks have worked in the past.

''I think the voters are probably tired of accusations, tired of the negative back-and-forth. But if an issue they care about is framed in a way that can connect with them, then it's effective,'' said Democratic ad-maker David Eichenbaum. ''Voters still say that the issue of Social Security is one of their top concerns. It would be foolish for us not to talk about that.''

No matter that Republicans insist they won't do anything to jeopardize Social Security benefits. And no matter that Democrats deny repeatedly they're seeking higher taxes.

''Privatize'' has become the buzz word of the Social Security debate. Democrats use it to describe President Bush's proposal to give younger workers the option of putting some of their Social Security payroll taxes into individual investment accounts.

Backers insist the program would not affect benefits of those retired or soon to retire. The nearly three-year swoon of the stock market has relegated the proposal to the congressional back burner and prompted many Republicans to ignore or disavow it -- but also has given Democrats fresh amunition.

Eichenbaum's ads for Rep. Jim Maloney, D-Conn., attacking opponent Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., on Social Security brought protests from the AARP, whose logo was featured in the commercial. The seniors' group is nonpartisan and does not endorse candidates, even though it has testified against the Bush plan. The ad was redone without the logo.

A similar flap occurred in Missouri, where the state Democratic Party used the AARP's logo in mass mailings against GOP Senate candidate Jim Talent. The mailings stated that the AARP ''opposes Jim Talent's plan to privatize Social Security because it would cut Social Security benefits.''

Ken Goldstein, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin who specializes in political advertising, said attacks like the Democratic effort on Social Security reflect intense attempts to make last-minute headway in tight races.

As Election Day approaches, both parties focus on a dwindling number of highly competitive races, ''and if you can move a couple of swing voters or mobilize your core with these ads, then the ads matter,'' Goldstein said. ''And political consultants, like anyone in a pressure situation, go back to what they've done in the past and what works.''

Researchers at the Wisconsin Advertising Project, which Goldstein directs, say that roughly 30 percent of political commercials address Social Security.

The stereotypes are reinforced by party leaders.

''After the election, they (Democrats) are going to come forward with their secret tax increase,'' Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., assured reporters. Asserted House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri: ''Republicans are mounting a stealth campaign to privatize and gut Social Security after the November elections. This is a well known fact. It is not conjecture.''

Do party stalwarts believe such rhetoric?

For the most part, they do, claims pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. ''These are the things that core Republicans and Democrats believe about the other party. These are the things that ring the bells, push the buttons. And that's important to turnout,'' he said.

Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

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