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In a Pivotal Year, GOP Plans to Get Personal

John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University and the author of a book on negative advertising, said Republicans and Democrats alike lack positive issues on which to run because of divisions over the war and economic policy. This will be a "very negative campaign and probably a more negative campaign than any in recent memory," Geer said.

As Republicans try to localize races, Democrats' hopes for the most part hinge on being able to nationalize the election and turn it into a referendum on the Iraq war, President Bush, and the performance of the Republican Congress -- all faring poorly in polls this year.

Bush will try to make terrorism the issue nationally, casting the election as a choice between two distinct approaches for protecting the nation from attack. Beyond that, however, most Republicans want to distance their elections from the national context.

That strategy is born of necessity. Republicans are alarmed by the large number of House and Senate incumbents who are trailing or tied in their internal polling. Many are attracting the support of less than 45 percent of likely voters -- a danger zone for any incumbent 60 days before an election. The political rule of thumb is that incumbents rarely draw a majority of voters who make up their minds in the days shortly before Election Day.

History shows how the combination of opposition research and negative advertising can work. In 2000, Republicans unleashed a furious attack on the spending practices of Democratic House candidate Linda Chapin, including her purchase of an $18,500 bronze frog as a legislator in Florida. Chapin, then the favorite to win an open Florida House seat, lost to Republican Ric Keller. That same election cycle, Republicans dug up a tape of state Rep. Eleanor Jordan (D-Ky.) asking to speed up a vote so she could attend a fundraiser, an image that destroyed her chances of knocking off Rep. Anne M. Northup (R).

This year, the challenge is tougher, as national polling shows voters dissatisfied with the party in power and ready for a change.

"When all [Republicans] do is launch potshots, they look like they're trying to cover up the fact that they have no solutions" said Phil Singer, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

As in past elections, the bulk of negative advertising this year probably will be delivered by party committees -- a strategy that allows the candidates to distance themselves from the trash-talking messages that turn off some voters.

Wisconsin's 8th District offers an example. Earlier this summer, the NRCC sent a young staff member to the district for one week to look through court records, government and medical documents, and local newspapers to find embarrassing information about physician Steve Kagen, one of the leading Democratic candidates in an important swing district, an NRCC aide said. The researcher discovered that Kagen's allergy clinic has sued more than 80 patients, mostly for failing to pay their bills.

A new NRCC ad airing in the Green Bay area, the district's main media market, warns: "What Dr. Millionaire doesn't want you to know is his clinic left more than 80 patients behind -- suing them. That's right, suing more than 80 patients."

In recent elections, Democratic officials have complained that Republicans are much better at opposition research. But Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who chair the Democrats' House and Senate campaign committees, have invested more heavily in research. Notably, the researchers dig not only into Republicans, but also their own candidates. This allows Democrats to anticipate what is coming and be ready to respond quickly.

One Democratic research success this year came when Emanuel's staff combed though the archives of several universities to find a copy of an article Colorado Republican candidate Rick O'Donnell wrote for an obscure publication in the mid-1990s. A researcher eventually found the article at George Washington University. In it, O'Donnell argued that Social Security should be abolished -- a revelation that was highlighted in three sharply worded DSCC mailings in the district.

Direct-mail appeals often carry the most negative and potentially damaging messages. Dan Hazelwood, a leading GOP direct mail consultant, said that if a hypothetical Democratic candidate favors the establishment of a garbage dump in a section of the district, for instance, it makes more sense to "narrow-cast" this message by mail to the people most affected rather than buying an expensive, districtwide television ad.

The RNC's expanded role in part reflects concerns that Senate Republicans may not have enough money to take the fight to Democrats. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, under Chair Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), had $15 million less to spend than the DSCC at the end of July. But, the RNC is planning to make up the difference. The committee ended July with nearly $44 million in the bank, four times what the Democratic National Committee had on hand.

In setting up a separate arm to spend money on Senate races, the RNC is altering its past practice. In the past, the RNC simply transferred a large sum of money to the House and Senate campaign committees and let the chairmen decide how to spend it. This year, Nelson -- a former top official in the Bush reelection effort and political strategist for House Republicans -- will work with consultants Tony Feather and Curt Anderson to oversee the TV and direct-mail campaign, which by law must remain independent of coordination directly with candidates.


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