WHEN Sen. Bob Dole replaced his top presidential campaign strategist this week, he promised a new look for his advertisements. ''Maybe we should become a little more positive,'' the Republican senator told reporters in Georgia in his typically understated way.
Senator Dole has taken heat for television ads that paint rival candidates Pat Buchanan as ''extreme'' and Lamar Alexander as a ''tax-and spend liberal.'' And he lost some credibility with New Hampshire voters when an ad he put out on Steve Forbes's flat-tax proposal proved inaccurate. Earlier, in Iowa, Mr. Forbes himself was credited with seriously wounding Dole with negative ads.
But has campaign '96 really been so ugly, compared with past presidential contests? Not so far, say observers of negative campaigning. Recall the devastating Willie Horton ad of 1988, which made Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis look soft on crime. Or Hubert Humphrey's insinuations in 1960 that John Kennedy's first loyalty might be to the pope.
''I think this is not much, to tell you the truth,'' Mr. Alexander said in a TV interview. He compared the campaign to a football game, where the teams shake hands before the match, then pound on each other, then it's over.''
Even Forbes can't be accused of running a mostly negative campaign by at least one standard. Campaign ad expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson looked at how much of Forbes's total air time has been ''self-promotional'' and how much has been attack ads, and found that by the New Hampshire primary, more than 50 percent was self-promotion. The key is his half-hour mini-documentary about himself, which is positive. That presumes, of course, that a 30-minute infomercial is equivalent to 30 60-second attack ads.
The most important innovation in campaign ads this year has been timing: Never before has the flood, including attack ads, started so early in key primary states. ''We've been saturated,'' says Henry Kenski, a political science and communications professor at the University of Arizona. ''I've been here 17 years and I've never seen anything like it.''
The reason for the early barrage is the superwealthy Forbes, who is sinking his own millions into advertising and therefore not subject to spending limits. In December and January, Forbes spent $2 million in Arizona, which held its primary Feb. 27. By advertising early and often, Forbes earned high name recognition and polling numbers that gave him an early lead in the state. But then Arizona voters began to observe how many negative ads he was running against his opponents. As in Iowa, a backlash against negative ads ensued, and his numbers dropped off.
As much as candidates swear they want to run positive campaigns, focusing on the issues and touting their own records, negative ads will always be part of the mix. The reason: they work. They provide information about candidates that helps voters decide whom to back.
This primary season has been no exception. Dole was the runaway front-runner in Iowa until Forbes started digging at him in advertisements. ''Forbes's big problem is that he used the attack ads as a sledgehammer and not a surgical instrument,'' says Darrell West, author of the book ''Air Wars,'' a history of campaign advertising. ''Then he ignored the backlash. People always react negatively to attack ads. So the goal is to attach negatives to your opponent, then back off in time to avoid a boomerang effect.''
Alexander has been best at getting in digs on his opponents while smiling, says Mr. West, a professor at Brown University in Providence, R.I. Alexander makes veiled references to Dole's age - touting, for example, his ''long experience'' - without coming out and saying he's too old. West says that's a smart plan: There are a lot of senior citizens in this country, and they vote.
Alexander, in fact, was the first to put out a negative ad in this campaign, a radio spot attacking short-lived candidate Pete Wilson, California's governor. But Alexander escaped the boomerang.
Ms. Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, is disturbed by all the public hand-wringing about ''negative campaigning.'' She says there's a crucial distinction between ads that lie or distort and those that create a negative image of an opponent by legitimately comparing positions. She blames the media for lumping them together.
Forbes's ad accusing Dole of voting to increase congressional pensions was illegitimate because it was misleading, says Jamieson. Dole had not voted directly for a higher pension, he had voted to increase congressional pay, which would have the indirect effect of higher pensions.
Buchanan's ad comparing his position on free trade to the other candidates' positions contains statistics that his opponents say are misleading, but Jamieson qualifies this as a legitimate comparison ad. ''Buchanan is within the plausible range of arguments on the subject,'' she says.
For Dole, the distinction between ''fair'' and ''unfair'' negative ads may be immaterial. He's decided he needs more in the positive column, a message that New Hampshire voters sent clearly. In the Voter News Service exit poll, voters were asked if they were trying to ''send a message against negative advertising'' in the way they voted. Thirty-five percent said sending such a message was ''very important,'' and of those, 32 percent voted for Alexander and 30 percent voted for Buchanan.