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Attacks Grow In Va. Race, And So Does Voter Anger

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 17, 2005

RICHMOND -- Negative campaigning has seized hold of the Virginia gubernatorial race in what political strategists now say will be a final three weeks dominated by death penalty ads and accusations of manipulation and lying.

Republican Jerry W. Kilgore and Democrat Timothy M. Kaine are flooding the airwaves with invective-filled spots they hope will make the difference in a close election. But the tenor of the campaign is prompting some voters to recoil in frustration.

In interviews with more than two dozen teachers, business owners, college students and homemakers across the state last week, Virginians said they felt inundated by the barrage of ads and unmoved by their messages.

Karen Hudson, 48, of Tazewell called it "mudslinging" and said she is disappointed. Suffolk banker Linda Bradshaw, 32, said she hates the "bashing." Kingstown resident Kathleen Snyder, 39, called it all "a colossal waste of time." And Audrey Davidson, an administrator for the Halifax County public school system, said the race has devolved over the past six months.

"Initially, we had two saints running for office," Davidson said over lunch at Ernie's Restaurant in South Boston. "Now, we find out that we have two men with the Devil as an opponent."

But national experts in political advertising say the attack strategy works, so it continues.

Advisers to Kilgore and Kaine promised, if anything, an escalation of the air war. Millions of dollars, hoarded for months in both camps, are flying out the window, and such national luminaries as former president Bill Clinton, first lady Laura Bush and former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani are arriving to help raise even more.

"There's a myth that we're all independent actors who make up [our] own minds. No one wants to admit they can be swayed by television," said Darrell M. West, a professor at Brown University and the author of "Air Wars," a history of campaign ads.

"It's like teenagers never are willing to admit they are influenced by their parents," he said. "But we know they are."

The week's opening volley by Kilgore -- two raw, emotional ads featuring the father and the widow of murder victims -- followed weeks of ads by Kilgore and Kaine aimed at demonizing each other on their records in office, taxes, school funding and campaign donors.

The candidate in the race who has not followed the pattern is Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester), who is running as an independent. Although known as a pit bull in the state Senate, he has remained positive in his campaign advertising. His first ad featured scenes of people banging pots and yelling, "We want Potts!"

At Baron's Pub in Suffolk on Thursday, Bradshaw recalled one of Kaine's early ads. It showed him playing with his children and ended with his 11-year-old daughter, Annella, saying: "Tim Kaine. A great dad for governor."

"That's what more people need to see: real people," she said. "I don't like to see ads where they are bashing each other. That one was nice and sweet."

Springtime Expectations

Five months ago, before the first television ad had been aired, The Washington Post sat down with four groups of voters -- in Northern Virginia, Southwest Virginia, Southside and Hampton Roads -- to assess their expectations for the election.

They talked about wanting the candidates to address the need for better jobs for textile workers, easier commutes, less-expensive health care and better schools. They said they hoped that the candidates would confront those issues but were not optimistic that they would.

Since then, the major-party candidates have detailed dozens of programs on their Web sites. But neither has spent any significant time talking about them.

Instead, Kaine and Kilgore have spent their time, and money, creating caricatures of their opponent -- sometimes literally. A Kilgore ad titled "Everything" features a cartoonish Kaine gobbling up everything in sight, including plates full of money, as an announcer says: "Nobody chews up tax money like liberal Tim Kaine."

A Kaine ad titled "Slice" shows a cake, with frosting picturing a school, being cut up as an announcer says that "any way you slice it, Jerry Kilgore will cut education." Kaine has also run ads accusing Kilgore of being beholden to drug companies and of lobbying to increase natural-gas taxes.

Last week, The Post assembled four groups of voters in those same regions, including many people who discussed the elections in May. Most expressed disappointment with the campaign's tenor.

"The thing that bugs me is why they spend so much time on the death penalty and abortion and these types of things," said Bill Kelehar, a plant manager at Annin & Co., a flagmaker.

South Boston and Halifax County need the next governor to help kick-start their economy, Kelehar said. He said he has stopped paying attention to the campaign: "I just got bored with it."

Jessica Johnson-Clark, 20, is a psychology student at Southern Virginia Community College in Tazewell. The candidates, she said, are not talking about what matters to people who live closer to Tennessee and North Carolina than Washington: jobs.

"My husband has an art degree," she said, "and he works in the coal mines." Aren't there any jobs in the arts? she was asked. "Not around here," she said.

Springfield financial planner Alan Norris, 49, said people in Kingstowne, where he lives, are concerned about traffic, schools and health care -- not social issues and taxes.

"What we need is somebody with a vision," he said at Macaroni Grill, not far from the Mixing Bowl. "That's what's seriously lacking here, is anybody with a vision. They are punching around with these small issues, but you've got nobody saying, 'Here's how I'm going to fix this state.' "

Norris and the others said they are tuning the ads out because they don't find them helpful. When they walk into the voting booth Nov. 8, they said, the ads probably won't help them make up their minds.

"There's nothing in any of these ads that would sway a decision," said Suffolk accountant Rick Eddleman, 53. "There's nothing of content that would help me make a decision. I'm inclined not to believe anybody."

Emotional Appeals' Power

Despite the protests from voters, however, West and others who have studied campaigns say attack ads are used for one reason: They usually work.

"What kinds of emotional hot buttons are pressed can really influence in dramatic ways how individuals act," said Ted Brader of the University of Michigan, who wrote the book "Campaigning for Hearts and Minds: How Emotional Appeals in Political Ads Work."

Kilgore's death penalty ads are aimed at pushing those buttons. They feature ominous music, dark backgrounds and sharp noises that sound like gunshots.

Kaine's responses seek to counter the emotion. In one, he talks directly to the camera, telling voters that he wants to "set the record straight" and saying he will enforce the death penalty. In another, he uses headlines in newspapers last week to undermine the power of the Kilgore ads.

"Jerry Kilgore's attacks are a vile attempt to manipulate an emotional issue for political gain," an announcer says. "Newspapers say Kilgore tars a decent man. Jerry Kilgore should be ashamed."

Brader said Kilgore's death penalty ads are typical of crime ads nationwide, which are "a staple in political campaigns, especially when they want to rouse fear."

He called Kilgore's version "understated and effective" but said that "there's a danger of backlash. People get angrier with the sponsor, and that reduces what might have been the positive aspects of the ad. Not everyone responds that way, but some do."

West agreed. "With an ad like that, you are betting the ranch," he said. "Voters are either going to be swayed by it or they are going to be upset."

Kilgore advisers say they believe the ads do not cross the line. They say reports from across the state suggest that the ads are weakening support for Kaine among death penalty supporters and emphasizing Kaine's liberal credentials.

"The feedback we get is tremendous. These are ads that compel the viewer to watch," said Kilgore spokesman Tim Murtaugh. "They are serious and powerful ads."

Kaine strategists, by contrast, say their feedback from voters indicates that the Kilgore death penalty ads might have gone too far. Communications director Mo Elleithee said many voters viewed the ads as a manipulation of the relatives' emotions for crass political gain.

"The more people hear these ads, the more turned off they get to Jerry Kilgore," Elleithee said. "He crossed the lines of decency and failed the credibility test."

The Post's interviews with voters support the idea that they disapprove of what they see.

Richard O. Harrell III, who runs a trucking company in South Boston, said he believes that both Kilgore and Kaine are "personable, smart" candidates and that either would make a decent governor. But he said he is disappointed by the "tone" of the contest between them.

"It has reverted," he said, "to the lowest common denominator."

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