How to make attack ads ... with manners

Miss Manners would be proud.

If taking responsibility for your actions is a cardinal rule of acting like a lady or a gentleman, then a pioneering North Carolina law will provide politicians with a crash course in civility.

In a sharp break from recent campaign strategies, candidates here now have to show their mugs when they fling mud at opponents on TV. In contrast to federal law, where disclaimers take up the space of a postage stamp, the year-old North Carolina law demands a six-second face shot of the candidate and a message, in the candidate's voice, claiming sponsorship.

The move comes at a time when only 4 percent of attack ads nationally are narrated by the attacker. And as states from Maine to Arizona push for greater ad accountability, it is the boldest attempt to rein in so-called "issue ads," which allow groups to anonymously attack opponents so long as they don't openly support the other candidate.

Already, the law is having an effect, as gubernatorial candidates this spring tested voters' tolerance for these new attack ads in the primaries. As the general election nears this fall, other states are watching to see what kind of effect it might have.

"There have been enough examples in national and local politics to create a sense that more disclosure is a prudent thing to do," says Earl Black, a history professor at Rice University.

In North Carolina, observers say they saw no evidence that fewer negative ads ran this spring. But they did report that ads showed greater caution.

Candidates tended to compare each other's positions more - instead of going right in "to cut the other guy's throat," says Mac McCorkle, a Durham, N.C., political consultant who helped write the new North Carolina law.

A primer on civility

Moreover, the primaries gave campaigns a primer on the new code of campaign conduct. Some varied the placement of the disclaimer. Others skirted attack ads altogether, and a few found out the hard way that "the dirt can rub off on your own hands if you appear in the ad," says Daniel Selpz of the Brennan Center for Justice in New York.

For instance, one of the original proponents of the law, Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker, fell flat when he appeared in a harshly worded ad against his opponent, Attorney General Mike Easley. Mr. Wicker, a rakish baby boomer who has had his eye on the governor's mansion since laying brick for it as a teenager, lost his bid.

By contrast, other opponents used the new rules to great effect. One candidate for lieutenant governor tried a twist: "I'm Ed Wilson, candidate for lieutenant governor, and I sponsored this ad. The special interests won't like it, but I don't work for them."

And the Republican candidate for governor, former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, took on his opponent personally, narrating ads himself.Many people commented how they liked the straightforward approach.

"When we first learned of the law..., we had no idea what effect it was going to have," says Chris Neeley, Mr. Vinroot's campaign manager. "In retrospect, it turned out to be huge advantage for us in the primary, and I suspect the same will be true in the general election. If a campaign has a candidate who is ... good on TV, I believe that it's to your advantage to have the candidate on there."

Interestingly, no interest group launched an attack ad this spring under the new law, which would require a representative of the group to make the six-second mug shot. But many experts expect some to come in November.

To be sure, North Carolina's history of harsh TV ads played a role in the adoption of the new law. Most notable, perhaps, was a recent campaign when a group called Farmers for Fairness attacked a representative who took a stand against hog lagoons. She subsequently lost her seat.

Clamoring for character

Yet some say that a growing "character movement" in the state is an equally important factor.

*In some schools, students now get "proud pickle" awards and other benefits for exhibiting good character.

*A local TV station gave 90 two-minute slots to candidates before the primary so long as they didn't mention their opponents.

*The recent State Games in Raleigh, courtside observers hunted for sportsmanship and later gave out plaques.

Some of these impulses are showing up nationally, too. Last week, President Clinton signed into law a bill that requires more disclosure from "stealth groups," though it's not as tough as North Carolina's law. On Capitol Hill, Rep. David Price of North Carolina is trying to bring his state's rules to Congress, adding a "stand by your ad" provision to a larger campaign-reform bill.

"Campaign reform is about ... improving the tenor, tone, substance of political debate," says Thomas Bates, Mr. Price's press secretary.

Whether this civility will bring more people to the polls, though, is a subject of great debate. Various polls have shown that negative ads turn off voters. But history has shown that sometimes, the most heated races are most closely followed.

"In 1984, when we ran a very aggressive campaign for Jesse Helms, both camps ran a lot of negative ads and you had the biggest voter turnout in North Carolina history," says Carter Wrenn, Senator Helms's consultant. "Criticism ... is a key part of the democratic process."

Moreover, he adds, the new law is unfair because it "heavily favors incumbents," who are often most vulnerable to undercover critics. Indeed, the law will likely see its share of challenges, both political and legal. A slew of reform initiatives in various states are now being perused by courts. Most recently, the Second US Circuit Court of Appeals in June came down against a Vermont disclosure law.

Still, some experts say this law is a step in the right direction. Says Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution in Washington:"There's something something to be said for trying to get it going in the state, as a way to stimulate national debate."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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