OK couch potatoes, time for Al and George

This weekend, Campaign 2000 begins in earnest, featuring more ads than ever.

Hold onto your clickers, the political media blitz is about to begin.

And this year, voters in the 17 to 21 most hotly contested states can expect to be blinded by the post-Labor-Day video onslaught like never before.

Analysts now predict candidates and their campaigns will pour an astounding $1 billion dollars into the coffers of America's television stations.

That's a record, almost as much as General Motors the nation's top advertiser, spends every year hawking cars.

The deluge comes as politicians, like their car-salesmen compatriots, are struggling to capture an increasingly fragmented audience, getting less bang for each advertising buck spent as more Americans flip from the networks to cable and their Web-TV browsers.

Ironically, that could produce an unexpected upside.

The fear that negative ads might exacerbate the problem could result in a more meaty, issue-oriented advertising campaign.

"I think we're going to see high levels of 'contrast advertising,' " says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. That's where one candidate criticizes his opponent's proposal and touts his own in the same 30 seconds. Ms. Jamieson calls that a "good form of advertising, because if you don't like the attack, you know who to call accountable."

Fortunately for the campaigns, record-breaking infusions of "soft money" - the limitless cash Democrats and Republicans can collect for "party building purposes" - have been able to fuel the record TV ad spending.

But that gives other critics reason to worry. "It's going to be a banner year for broadcasters," says Paul Taylor, the executive director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns. "Although, on balance, I think it will be a net loss for the public."

Mr. Taylor worries that the average citizen who isn't closely tuned to the political process, will be turned off by the blizzard of "grating, annoying, synthetic, and deceptive" ads, even if the spots are more issue-oriented than in the past.

Harvard University's Alex Jones agrees, in part, because of the context in which the advertising takes place - the frenzied rush to cuddle up to special interests to raise campaign cash.

"There's a tuning out of the political process that is profound, and certainly the idea that huge amounts of are money being solicited [for television ads] has a lot to do with it," says Mr. Jones, director of Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

Money talking

Indeed, millions of Americans, like Dan Brown, the co-owner of the Capitol Cat Clinic outside of Washington, are fed up with what they believe is the corrupting power of money in the political process.

But Mr. Brown, who considers himself one of the most "apolitical people around," exemplifies both Jamieson's and Jones's points well. He's disgusted by the amount of money that's spent on political advertising, and the more he sees, the more he tends to "zone them out," particularly if he feels they're misleading.

"But if there's information about the platforms of the candidates, it's important to listen," he says. "If it becomes a bashing campaign, I turn it off, but I also think most of the candidates have moved away from that approach."

Last week, the Republican National Committee pulled an ad that questioned Gore's honesty after internal critics pointed out that it was obviously misleading in its use of an old video clip.

This week, both the Republican and Democratic National Committees are hoping to catch Mr. Brown's eye with the release of dueling campaign ads criticizing each other's prescription-drug proposal.

The Republican ad starts by attacking the Clinton-Gore administration for doing nothing while prescription-drug prices soared over the past eight years. It then touts George W. Bush's plan, contending that under it "every senior will have access to prescription-drug coverage."

The Democratic ad opens contending that Bush's approach will leave millions of seniors without coverage, while forcing the ones who do get it to go to health-maintenance organizations - an approach endorsed by the "big drug companies." It then goes on to tout Al Gore for "fighting the big drug companies" and his plan to "cover all seniors."

Both ads embrace the new trend of being negative and positive at the same time.

That's also what Hillary Rodham Clinton has tried to do in her widely watched New York State Senate race with Rep. Rick Lazio. At the end of July - after Republican Lazio polled 50 percent - Mrs. Clinton started a series of ads, trying to define her opponent as a Newt Gingrich lieutenant who slashed Medicare benefits and voted against funding new teachers, while also building a positive image of herself.

Heated Senate race

"Rick Lazio - the more you know, the more you wonder," says one tag line, attempting to seed doubts about Lazio's competence.

The ads have shown up early and often around the state, even in small media markets.

"When the ads show up this early in Utica - not a high-priority area - and in high volume, it tells me she is trying hard to create a more dangerous persona than the one he projects," says Utica-based pollster John Zogby.

The ads may have had some impact. After the Democratic convention, Mrs. Clinton edged ahead in the polls. The Lazio campaign has started counter punching. This week it released ads that accused the Clinton campaign of "gross distortions," ending with the tag line, "You just can't trust her."

Political analysts expect this Empire State mud fight to intensify in the weeks ahead, especially since Clinton's negative ratings remain very high.

"She must drive his negatives higher - and they will go higher - as she attacks," says Jay Severin, a New York-based Republican political consultant. "But, it's a risky strategy, and she has no other choices."

Whether key voters will notice these ads is another matter.

This month, NBC will start to broadcast the Olympic Games from Sydney, Australia. Many of the undecided voters around the country - notably college educated suburbanites - are likely to be tuned to the dashes and spectacle. Don't groan, but this could intensify the ad blitz in October.

*Staff writer Ron Scherer contributed to this story.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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