By most counts, the race turned ugly with a television ad. The ad featured a mother who attacked Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D) of Ohio: ``He votes against laws that will put child pornographers out of business. I want to put Howard Metzenbaum out of business.''
It was a startling political attack - not only because of the subject, but also because of the politician who made it. Cleveland Mayor George Voinovich had a reputation as a moderate, good-government Republican. Now, in his bid to unseat Senator Metzenbaum, he was resorting to what many columnists would later call sleazy tactics.
The incident - and the two-week furor that followed - provides a case study of why candidates choose negative campaigning and how it can misfire.
For the first few days, the attack seemed to energize the Voinovich campaign, says press secretary Joe Wagner. Then, columnists and commentators got critical. ``The child pornography matter plays to emotions while adding nothing useful to the political debate,'' the Cleveland Plain Dealer editorialized. ``It looks for all the world like a desperation move by a candidate down in the polls.''
In fact, Mayor Voinovich was way down in the published polls - 21 to 26 points by the beginning of May - and seemed to be making little progress since. If, publicly, the child-porn ad was supposed to highlight Metzenbaum's liberal record, privately, GOP officials said its aim was to drag Metzenbaum into a debate with Voinovich.
The Voinovich ad started to air the Tuesday after Labor Day. By Thursday morning, Metzenbaum campaign officals were in Washington, D.C., filming a response by Sen. John Glenn (D) of Ohio. ``His new TV ad is the lowest gutter politics I've seen in a long time,'' Senator Glenn told viewers. ``These ads tell much more about George Voinovich than they do about Howard Metzenbaum.''
Thus, the cycle of punch and counterpunch had begun. Whatever real issues faced Ohio, they were pushed aside. A negative campaign attack - even if unbelievable - was considered too dangerous to be left unanswered. ``If we have learned anything in the past 20 years ... candidates would do better to respond right away and not let the charge fester,'' says Dale Butland, press secretary for the Metzenbaum campaign.
In fact, adds campaign manager Peter Harris, the ad allowed Metzenbaum to counterattack by raising a new issue: Voinovich's character.
The Voinovich forces countered the following Monday with two new ads. The first pointed to 1977, when the senator twice opposed a tough child-porn amendment. The second ad quoted an anti-porn group, which charged that Metzenbaum was holding up current child-porn legislation.
By this time, the major dailies were sorting out the facts, and political commentators quickly concluded that the Voinovich ads were unfair.
While technically correct, the first new ad failed to mention, among other things, that the amendment raised serious constitutional questions or that Metzenbaum eventually voted for the bill that included the amendment. The second new ad was possibly accurate but impossible to substantiate, since Democratic and Republican senators disagreed about who did what. And after eight months of delay, the new child-porn amendment passed unanimously last week with Metzenbaum's support.
Why did Voinovich take such a high-risk gamble? Because glossy images too often outweigh substance, the candidate says. Metzenbaum ``is trying to fool people, so you get into some hard-hitting issues. ... I really have to pierce that veil and really get people to understand who he is and what he stands for.''
The press doesn't help, he adds. ``We have put out position paper after position paper on issues that are facing America. I have been with editorial boards who have never read them - some of them haven't even read the summary pieces,'' he says. ``The very people who are telling me, `You should run an issue-oriented campaign,' don't even read the material we send them.''
Perhaps the most telling note of the affair was that most voters ignored it, says Alfred Tuchfarber, director of the University of Cincinnati's Ohio Poll. That poll and one from the University of Akron found the candidates' support in September had barely shifted since the beginning of the year.