Voters look for issues beneath mud in Senate campaign. NEW JERSEY

Charges of negative campaigning have plagued the New Jersey Senate race between Democratic incumbent Frank Lautenberg and Republican challenger Pete Dawkins. Indeed, they have drawn far more attention than the issues. The Philadelphia Inquirer, endorsing Senator Lautenberg for its New Jersey readers, spoke of ``wiping away the thick layers of campaign mud that have obscured matters like credentials and issues'' in the race.

Most prominently, a series of television ads on both sides disappointed some political observers, and turned off some voters.

One Lautenberg ad accuses Mr. Dawkins of being a carpetbagger, and of polling in other states to decide where to run. Dawkins, in turn, has run an ad that essentially charges Lautenberg with profiting from his Senate seat.

The race features the first-term senator, a former computer entrepreneur, against a political newcomer with a r'esum'e ranging from Heisman trophy winner to Army brigadier general to Wall Street.

A poll by Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University released this week found that nearly half of all voters had not formed an opinion about either candidate, though 80 percent of all voters had seen the TV ads. Many voters had decided on a candidate for reasons such as party affiliations.

In that poll, Lautenberg led Dawkins 46 percent to 34 percent. Twelve percent were totally undecided, while 8 percent were undecided, but leaning toward a candidate.

Yesterday Eagleton released a poll on the effect of those ads.

``People found them not very useful, not very helpful, not very truthful,'' says Cliff Zukin, director of polling at Eagleton. The type of campaign that has been run has ``prevented and stopped the normal growth of opinion,'' he says, adding he has never seen such results in a New Jersey race.

``What can you say about those ads? For the most part, we were not happy,'' says Herbert Rothschild, a board member of New Jersey Votes for Peace, a coalition of peace groups which supports and has campaigned for Lautenberg.

Mr. Rothschild, who is enthusiastic about Lautenberg, says Dawkins set the tone. Dawkins supporters argue otherwise.

``Dawkins has a clear message and has tried to articulate it,'' says John Penn, Republican chairman for Somerset County. ``He's had a lot of trouble with his opponent in keeping his message on track.''

Mr. Penn, who is involved in Dawkins's campaign, says Lautenberg's ads have made charges that are untrue, and that the Senator kept his campaign going with personal attacks.

Charlie Perkins, a spokesman for Lautenberg, says the campaigns on both sides have been ``tough and aggressive.'' He argues that for the most part it is the media, and not the public, that sees the campaign as negative.

Professor Zukin says both candidates have turned to more positive campaigning of late. Indeed, both campaigns say the last week will focus on the important issues.

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