WHO will raise your taxes? Who will fix the economy? Whom can you trust? To ask - and answer - those questions for voters, this year's presidential candidates have been using the mass media in unprecedented ways.
The approach has been cost-conscious and increasingly sophisticated, media-watchers say, with more emphasis on TV talk shows and less on buttons and bumper stickers. The candidates are now unleashing the bulk of their television advertisements, including Ross Perot's half-hour ad on CBS last Tuesday. A second Perot ad airs tomorrow night.
Until this week, TV ads had played a smaller role than they have in the past, says Kathleen Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.
And that's good, says Clarke Caywood at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. "We were relying too much on a single vehicle. And it was jeopardizing political advertising," he says.
"People were so angry at political advertising in the last few elections that it was creating the threat that it would be regulated, which would be a First Amendment problem. This campaign is taking the pressure off of political advertising," Mr. Caywood says.
In the last election, Michael Dukakis's campaign was hurt by an independently funded ad about Willie Horton, a black convict who raped a white woman while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison. The ad was so widely reviled for its racial content that Sig Rogich, an advertising executive who assisted the Bush campaign and whom Mr. Bush later made an ambassador, had to deny responsibility for it at his Senate confirmation hearing.
Last month, Mr. Rogich was pulled from his diplomatic post to take over as senior media adviser for the troubled Bush campaign this year, which Caywood says had looked "a little bit like Dukakis's campaign, which was one of the most pathetic campaigns in the history of the country in terms of communications."
In the first TV commercial from Rogich, middle-class voters worry about how Bill Clinton's proposals might affect their taxes. Mr. Clinton's team quickly responded with an ad of their own that called Rogich's ad "scary" and "misleading."
Rogich was involved with another memorable anti-Dukakis ad, which mocked the Bay State governor as he rode in a tank. Does he have something like that in store for Clinton?
"There's a lot of issues that Bill Clinton has to live with," Rogich says. "We probably don't have enough time to put them all on the air."
Craig Sutherland, Texas media coordinator for Clinton, has been focusing on "George Bush's broken promises." Instead of simply running national ads, Mr. Sutherland has been taking the same idea and giving it a local twist. For instance, one ad that aired in Texas talks of Bush's promise to create 30 million jobs, and says he's 29 million short. Then it adds that in Texas, 160,000 jobs in the energy industry have been lost under Bush and Ronald Reagan.
"Essentially, Bill Clinton is trying to create the exact same arguments that Ronald Reagan used when he ran successfully against Jimmy Carter," says Tom Hollihan, chairman of the College of Communications Arts and Sciences at the University of Southern California.
For the moment, the born-again candidacy of Texan Ross Perot will not affect Clinton's advertising in this battleground state, Sutherland says. "Our fight is with George Bush."
Like Rogich, Sutherland has let real people air their concerns in Clinton ads. Republicans and "Reagan Democrats" who back Clinton tell of being alienated by Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson at the GOP convention.
The most talked-about political piece on TV is not an ad, but a music video. "Read My Lips" sets George Bush sound bites to dance music. A CD single, available in record stores, has sold 20,000 copies at $5.98, according to Polydor Records.
Dreamed up by Don Was, producer for Bonnie Raitt, the recording splices the quotes together so that Bush seems to contradict himself or to laugh cynically at his own statements.
Caywood calls the piece "creative genius" and "a total trashing, an indictment of George Bush...."
Hollihan calls the video "strongly negative." Bush's "read my lips" pledge has become a symbol of this campaign the way Willie Horton did in the last one. The only ad by Republicans that comes close to the same style shows Clinton signing tax bills in rapid sequence, accompanied by quick-paced banjo music.
One reason the candidates delayed their TV advertising was that they were already so visible on talk shows. "This is a campaign of a lot of free media," Caywood says.
Tom Farmer, senior producer of "Larry King Live," says Mr. Perot has appeared five times since February, Clinton and Al Gore thrice each, and Bush and Dan Quayle once each. "We've always had political figures on," Mr. Farmer says, but "it seems to be a bigger phenomenon this year."
Caywood says Americans have developed a "heavy appetite" for news via "info-tainment" and "confron-tainment" programs. "The candidates are going logically where the audiences are."
The rise of that alternative news venue is another blow at the network's struggling evening newscasts. "It's no wonder that with the average sound bite on the evening newscasts trending below the nine-second range, voters are fed up and candidates look for another way to reach people," Farmer says, adding ratings have never been better. "If you sit down and watch a guy for an hour, you will see him hit issues, cope with curveball phone calls. You will see how he reacts to a joke, to an unexpected questio n. You will get a full measure of the candidate," Farmer says.
Still, Caywood calls an appearance by the Perot family on Larry King last week "30 minutes of journalism, an hour of advertising.... the convention that Perot did not have."
But Farmer takes exception to that. "We're not surrendering the airwaves." Rather, there's a "fairly intense dialogue" with "tough questions."