In recall campaign, ads are risky business

In a state where more people are paying attention to Arnold & Gray than to Ben & J. Lo, campaign strategists face what may be the biggest challenge of their careers: Can they create political ads powerful enough to break through the intense media coverage, the impending deluge of candidate commercials, and the endless promos for the new TV season?

Obstacles loom all over the place. Negative advertising in a 135-candidate field risks unintended consequences, while overloaded viewers may ignore those saccharine shots of candidates communing with carefully chosen schoolchildren. Raising the degree of difficulty even more, strategists haven't had months to raise money, prepare campaigns, or even scarf up the best-sounding announcers.

"Imagine planning a 500-person wedding in a weekend," says Mark Weaver, a Democratic political consultant from Ohio. "You can do it, but it just won't be nearly as well-presented as if you had more time."

Each of the major candidates has special challenges to overcome before voters say "I do." For once in his life, ex-bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger actually needs more definition, but that's hardly an easy task in just a 30-second commercial break on "Dr. Phil."

On the other side of the political aisle, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante must convince voters he's the best person for the job he supposedly doesn't want while relying on the clunkiest of slogans ("No on recall, yes on Bustamante").

The campaign dynamics are even tougher on the 5-percenters, the candidates with barely a drop of support in the polls. In a state where it takes $1.5 million a week to run an effective TV ad campaign, their skimpy war chests may doom them to do little more than hope for Mr. Schwarzenegger to fall apart.

But rest assured that none of the candidates would offer to trade places with Gov. Gray Davis, who faces the biggest hurdle of all: convincing 50 percent of the voters, plus one, to keep him in office.

In his first stab at TV commercials in the recall race, however, Governor Davis let someone else do the talking. In one of two ads released Wednesday, US Sen. Dianne Feinstein - the target herself of an unsuccessful recall as mayor of San Francisco - reminds voters of the risk that a candidate could win with just 15 percent of the vote. "The governor deserves the chance to keep working on issues we care about - like education, health care, and important new privacy legislation," she says. "On the recall: Just say no."

Nowhere is Davis mentioned by name.

Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, introduced a 15-second TV commercial this week with another snappy tagline: "Special interests have a stranglehold on Sacramento. Here's how it works: Money comes in; favors go out. The people lose. We need to send a message: Game over."

In other ads, he gives voters his plan - "Audit everything, open the books, and then we end this crazy deficit spending" - while insisting he can do it without a car tax or education cuts.

So far, only Davis has come under attack in the few campaign ads aired. Some experts think the governor will be the only bull's-eye for some time, especially as the recall-obsessed media picks apart top candidates like Schwarzenegger.

"Why should Bustamante do any of the heavy lifting and take the rap for the negative campaigning?" asks Mark Petracca, professor of political science at the University of California at Irvine. "All kinds of bad garbage is going to be dug up and plastered on the pages of newspapers up and down the state. Why do it yourself?"

If they do run negative ads, candidates run the risk of driving voters into the hands of a third hopeful. For example, if Mr. Bustamante attacks Schwarzenegger, candidate Peter Ueberroth might start looking good. This kind of worst-case scenario is known as a "murder-suicide" in political circles.

If the candidates have any doubt about the risk, they need just look back to the 1998 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Dark horse Davis won the race after one of his opponents bashed the other and brought both of them down, recalls Kevin Spillane, a Republican political consultant in Sacramento.

Davis is actually a master at negative campaigning. Last year, in one of the strangest twists of American politics, his supporters orchestrated an ad campaign to knock former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan out of the Republican gubernatorial primary. The crippling of the moderate Mr. Riordan helped conservative Bill Simon, who won the primary and lost to Davis in the fall.

Most of the 135 replacement candidates don't have to worry about the pros and cons of attack ads. All but 10 have raised less than $2,000, barely enough to blanket the airwaves in Barstow, let alone the entire state.

But there's still plenty of money for the top hopefuls to play with. "Come Oct. 7, Californians will be sick and tired of political ads," predicts Mr. Weaver. "They'll be ready to say 'Enough already.' "

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