Voters go negative on negativity

Gore's speech tonight will tell if he is abandoning 'attack politics.

It seems to be Al Gore's first instinct: hit your opponent's weaknesses and hit them hard.

That approach is a proven one in modern campaigning, having succeeded as recently as this spring, when Mr. Gore hammered on and then vanquished challenger Bill Bradley in the Democratic primaries.

But there's an aura of optimism floating over a prosperous America these days, and indications are that Mr. Gore's sledgehammer campaign style may be out of sync with these feel-good times.

Tonight, as he takes the stage to accept the Democratic presidential nomination, Gore must find a way to persuade his audience - especially the growing body of independent voters who recoil at the slightest whiff of attack politics - that he's a guy they can actually like. It's a speech that will indicate whether he's figured out how to define his differences with GOP nominee George W. Bush - without overtly criticizing him.

"This is the first year voters are saying they're really going to vote their feelings on how positive and specific a candidate is being," says Republican pollster Frank Luntz. "They're saying, 'We've had enough of the negative stuff.' "

That sentiment, he and others say, represents a departure from voter attitudes of earlier eras. It is rooted in a desire to acknowledge and celebrate the go-go economy, as well as in revulsion of the highly charged partisan atmosphere that has permeated Washington in recent years.

Each night this week, Mr. Luntz has been meeting with a group of undecided voters - a focus group of 36 - who, it turns out, are delivering the "no negativity" message loud and clear.

They gather in an airplane-hangar-size soundstage near the convention hall (the same room where Drew Barrymore recently shot scenes for the new "Charlie's Angels" movie), and listen to the evening's major speeches. One-third Republicans, one-third Democrats, one-third independents, the participants each hold a TV-remote-size device used to gauge their responses. As they watch the TV, they twist the dials on their boxes to register any number from 0 to 100. When they like something that's said, they turn it up toward 100. When they don't, the dial heads south.

Their responses are averaged and fed onto a TV monitor. Luntz and his team watch the lines spike upward and downward in real time as the speech unfolds.

Throughout the week, whenever criticism of Republicans flares, the lines tumble downward.

"Some in the other party would have us go back," said Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee in Tuesday's keynote speech. The lines dipped.

"They don't make themselves any better by doing that," explains focus-group member Elsie McClenon, an apartment house manager. "They should just leave enough alone."

Yet this week's speeches - like those of the Republicans in Philadelphia - are fairly devoid of vitriol. That's because, says Luntz, politicians are starting to figure out the no-nastiness mood of the electorate. "Both sides are used to using sledgehammers, not subtlety. But when they do go overboard, they lose voters, so they're starting to learn."

"Gratuitous cheap shots are certainly not resonating well," adds Republican strategist Sal Russo, "and the foundation of this change is the good economy." Most people think the country is headed in the right direction. They're happy with their own financial status. In this atmosphere, he says, overt criticism doesn't fit.

Another reason for the change, says pollster Floyd Ciruli, is the declining partisanship of many independent-leaning voters. "People don't understand or respect parties as much," so when one party criticizes the other, it's a pox on both their candidates.

Luntz also attributes some of the antinegative fervor to John McCain. "He campaigned for something." With his campaign-finance crusade and patriotic campaign, "He gave people an excuse to expect something more."

Politicians are also getting more adept at using the stigma against negative attacks to skewer one another.

President Clinton, says Mr. Ciruli, "has patented the argument that any criticism of him is patently unfair," especially in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

All this leaves Gore with a tough path to navigate tonight - and in the fall campaign. He's behind in polls, so, "He has to say, 'Don't vote for Bush, because I can do it better than he can - and this is how," says Mr. Russo. "He has to be specific about what he would do."

Bush has risks, too, including with his oft-invoked pledge to "restore honor and dignity to the White House" - an implicit criticism of Clinton's scandals.

Luntz says focus groups' responses to this phrase "depend on the context." If it comes amid talk of Bush's plan for governing, "it spikes way up." If it comes alongside criticism of Gore, "he loses big points."

Adds Ciruli: "The irony here is that both sides have to criticize each other, but in a way that's not critical."

One way to succeed is to use humor - something Mr. Clinton has mastered. Criticizing Republicans' economic approach on Monday, Clinton jovially invoked Harry Truman: "If you want to live like a Republican, you better vote for the Democrats." The focus-group lines spiked way up. But Clinton had still made his sharp-edged point.

Gore can only hope to capture the same high spikes as his boss. The focus group will be watching, dialing boxes in hand.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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