More GOP Hopefuls Using Scandal in Ads
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 17, 1998; Page A17
A small but growing number of GOP congressional candidates are attacking President Clinton in their advertising as the battle over possible impeachment casts a lengthening shadow over the midterm elections.
"The headlines tell the story -- President Clinton lying to the American people. . . . Dr. Gil Aust knows our military, our nation deserve better," says a commercial for the Republican challenging Rep. Robert "Bud" Cramer (D-Ala.).
"Now our president has admitted lying to us," says an ad that Republican Tom Roberg is using against Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.). "Now is not the time to be silent. Where do you stand, Mr. Price?"
After an initial period of caution, GOP candidates have seized upon the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal. Some, like Aust, have done it boldly by urging Clinton to resign; others have invoked the controversy indirectly, by stressing morality and integrity. Both approaches recognize that the hot issues of just a few weeks ago -- education and health care -- have been eclipsed. These candidates said they believe that in their districts Clinton is overwhelmingly unpopular and that these sorts of ads will resonate.
"This type of ad is red meat for our base," said Marc Rotterman, Roberg's media adviser. As for Democrat Price, Rotterman said, "frankly, if he asks the guy to resign he loses his base, or his base is demoralized."
Price spokesman Tom Bates replied that "this is not a time for political grandstanding and partisan rhetoric. Anyone who tries to make political hay out of this issue will be seen as an opportunist."
Aust, the Alabama candidate challenging a four-term incumbent, said his ad has given him a clear advantage in a district that "is very anti-Clinton." Robert J. Dole carried the district in 1996. "In response to the large number of inquiries we had, we thought it was a good opportunity to show what I would be like in Washington, which would be to formulate an opinion based on the facts and issue a statement on it," Aust said.
Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho) has also aired a spot urging Clinton to resign, but that backfired when the Idaho Statesman used it as justification to publish a report about her 1980s affair with a married man.
Some Democrats are concerned that GOP candidates will use snippets of Clinton's videotaped grand jury testimony in commercials this fall. Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) said he would advise against using such footage. "It would make a bad ad that probably wouldn't persuade anyone," Cox said yesterday.
Clifford May, communications director for the Republican National Committee, said: "Clinton has forced the issues of values and standards." He said it isn't necessary for GOP commercials to cite the president by name because "everyone knows what's going on. All you've got to do is turn on the TV."
Even some Democrats have sought in campaign commercials to distance themselves from Clinton. In Texas, Rep. Charles W. Stenholm (D) has been running ads highlighting his willingness to challenge Clinton on issues, which end: "Charlie Stenholm. Our values. Our congressman." Stenholm's spokesman, Jeff Meador, denied that the ads have anything to do with the Lewinsky scandal.
Democrats have responded to the attack ads by pointing to their past disapproval of Clinton's infidelity and lying. Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) released a compilation of his criticisms of Clinton's behavior. "We think the voters of Florida will judge Senator Graham based on his record, not someone else's record," said Graham spokesman Chris Hand.
The ad by Graham's challenger, state Sen. Charlie Crist (R), moves from slow-motion footage of a bleary-eyed Clinton to footage of Graham: "He looked us in the eyes and lied. His political ally, Bob Graham, calls his behavior 'disappointing.' Charlie Crist calls it 'inexcusable.' "
California Attorney General Dan Lungren (R), who is running for governor, is among those taking a milder approach. He says in a new ad that "character is about doing what's right when no one is looking." The kicker: "Dan Lungren -- a governor we can trust." Lungren stressed that Clinton had campaigned for his opponent, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis (D).
Still, one national GOP strategist cautioned against pressing the issue too far. "If Republicans are seen as the party of impeachment, I don't think we do as well," he said.
Democratic campaign officials argued yesterday that Republicans will pay a heavy price for focusing on Clinton in campaign ads. "If a congressional candidate starts to talk about resignation, it will be an overall net negative and could alienate key voter groups like women over 50," said party pollster Jim Lauer.
In a few other races, Republican candidates are making Clinton an issue in direct mailings, news releases and other forums. In Tennessee, Republican challenger Walt Massey last month sent direct mail to several thousand likely GOP voters with a big picture of Clinton and the White House with the word "SCANDAL" emblazoned across the front. Massey, who faces Rep. Bart Gordon (D), has called on Clinton to resign.
In recent weeks, the scandal has become a central theme in Massey's campaign -- more out of necessity than choice, said campaign manager David Allison. "We'd rather talk about defense or tax policy, but this is the thing people want to talk about," he said, citing a recent radio program where voters repeatedly asked Massey where he stood on Clinton.
Crist said the White House scandal is also on the minds of Florida voters. "It's the only thing people talk about," he said. "It's overwhelming. I've never seen anything like it." It's complicated the opportunity to get any other message out."
Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
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