Robert Squier, an expert on television advertising, says politics in America has become ``an elaborate video game.'' If that is true, Bruce Babbitt has just become the first candidate for president in 1988 to drop his quarter into the video machine. Or in his case, a quarter of a million dollars.
Mr. Babbitt, a Democrat and the former governor of Arizona, has pushed video politics into a new era, launching the earliest television ad campaign in the history of the Iowa presidential caucuses.
Nine months before the voting, Mr. Babbitt's TV spots are flickering across screens in Des Moines, in central Iowa, and in Cedar Rapids, in the eastern part of the state. Soon they will be extended to Davenport and Sioux City.
By the middle of June, 70 percent of the Democratic voters in Iowa will have seen Babbitt's ads. Babbitt hopes that will be enough to fire up his nascent campaign in the aftermath of Gary Hart's sudden withdrawal from the race last week.
Babbitt's TV gambit has already achieved one of his goals. It has gained the attention of just about everyone in the world of presidential politics.
Moreover, the Arizonan's strategy could mark a new chapter in the ascendency of television in American campaigns.
But his heavy reliance on television has reminded experts across the country of a long-term development that has caused increasing concern. The video screen, with its television ads, has become the most important and controversial battleground in modern-day politics.
There is growing concern among some media gurus, such as Charles Guggenheim, president of Guggenheim Productions, that the influence of the tube has gotten out of hand.
Analysts say that 80 percent of the voters now get a majority of their information about politics from television. And much of that information comes to them in the form of political advertising.
More and more of that advertising, especially in recent years, has been characterized as ``negative'' or ``dirty.'' (Those who favor such ads, however, call them ``comparative.'')
Mr. Guggenheim, who did some of the earliest political work on TV, back in 1956, says campaign advertisements on television have become so negative that American political campaigns are turning into ``spitting contests.''
Guggenheim blames the television industry. He observes that TV stations will sell only 30-second and 60-second time slots to politicians. It is impossible to buy longer segments. And this has a very detrimental effect on campaigns. He explains:
``It is much easier to make a negative announcement in 30 seconds. It's much easier to hit and run in 30 seconds. It's much easier to give innuendo and to tell half-truths and quarter-truths in 30 seconds.''
The trend toward negative politics reached a new peak in 1986, and that ``has increased the cynicism of the electorate,'' Guggenheim says.
Babbitt's ads in Iowa, however, are a far cry from the down-and-dirty politics decried by Guggenheim. His early TV salvo has followed a traditional route of being positive and upbeat.
Babbitt's press secretary, Mike McCurry, explains that the early foray onto television is an effort to ``marry the mass media with grass-roots organizing.''
So far, about 1,000 Iowans have volunteered to work for Babbitt's campaign. Babbitt's advisers want to keep that number growing throughout the summer. Their major problem: Most Iowans don't know who Babbitt is.
So they have rolled out five spots, some of 30 seconds, others of 60 seconds, to introduce their candidate. There is a ``hearts and flowers'' tone to the ads. In the background, birds chirp and violins play as Babbitt intones seriously about one of his favorite topics, the environment, and about the need for higher expectations from government.
In one spot, filmed on a farm, Babbitt says:
``It's almost as if the leadership of our country is saying: `Making a million bucks speculating is what America is all about.' That's wrong, because what America is all about is people working with their hands producing things. And we're going to recapture our greatness when the leadershp of this country will recognize that difference and take action against the speculators and say to the people who are producing with their hands: `You are what America is all about. And we are going to begin to use government to make sure that you are getting a fair shake.'''
Such ads are not what worry Guggenheim and other critics. They fret over ads that, in a few seconds, blacken the image of another candidate, or oversimplify a complex issue like economics or national defense.
Yet there is strong disagreement over this point among TV specialists. Not everyone agrees that negative ads are bad.
One such expert is Mr. Squier, who has helped elect many Democrats. He says that the slam-bang negative TV ads that ran in 1986 are very much in the tradition of American politics. They are ``informational,'' he says.
With the advent of such ads, Squier says, ``We have come back to the tradition of American politics, which is to say everything which you can turn up, and prove, about your opponent, and the opponent does the same about you.'' Then ``the voters decide what they will do with all that information.''
Squier is also a defender of the 30-second ad, as opposed to something longer. He calls it ``good discipline'' for politicians.
``I have seen very few politicians who can go on [and] say very much more than they said in the first 30 seconds,'' he says.
Squier delights in the rough-and-tumble of political debate through TV ads. He says:
``It produces a grubby, smarmy, interesting democracy very much like the one that was founded here 200 years ago.''