For the next two weeks, as they watch the local news or such popular programs as "Love Boat," more than a million Washington-area television viewers will see a series of advertisements touting the congressional candidacies of Democrat Steny Hoyer and Republican Audrey Scott.
If, by chance, these carefully crafted commercials are the only information the 165,000 registered voters in Maryland's 5th District receive before they vote in the May 19 special congressional election, they will cast their ballots with the following impressions:
Steny Hoyer, an earnest thin-faced man, is running for Congress because he wants to be "one of the best" representatives ever and, having served 12 years in the state senate, has the experience to be just that. As far as the viewer can glean from the advertisements, Hoyer is a middle-of-the-road candidate with no opponent.
Audrey Scott, an equally sincere, round-faced woman, is running for Congress to be "responsive" to the voters. She has an opponent, Hoyer, who, judging from the facial expressions and comments of several persons in some as-yet-unaired ads, is an unpleasant person associated with some sort of sinister "political machine."
The viewer of these 30-second television spots will not learn that Hoyer left the state senate in 1978, despite the comments of several persons who refer to him as "senator," or that his record in the senate was decidedly liberal. Nor will the viewer discover that Scott's job as bowie mayor is actually only a part-time, small-town (pop. 33,000) post, or that her party registration is Republican, since being a Republican does not fly well in Democratic Prince George's County.
But telling all is not the point in these short and expensive televised encounters with the two candidates who are running to fill the seat of Gladys Spellman. Hoyer and Scott, like the Hecht Co. or Sears, have a product to sell -- themselves -- and a limited time to do it, so they have taken to television this week to push the image they think has the best chance of getting them to Congress.
To do so, both have been filmed strolling through Metro stations, answering quesitons by their campaign supporters in the guise of "man-in-the-street" interviews, and discoursing on how they will represent the district if elected.
But as similar as the locale and format of the commercials are, these 30-second and 10-second spots, which for Scott began Thursday and for Hoyer Thursday, also reflect the different strategies pursued by the two camps during the six-week campaign.
Take for instance, a Hoyer advertisement that aired Thursday night. The scene is the crowded New Carrollton Metro station. From the midst of the commuters comes the candidate, clad in a conservative three-piece suit. He looks serious but confident as he talks aobut federal workers and his experience in state government. The commercial then closes with a shot of a waving American flag and a man's voice off camera stating, "Leadership is a rare quality. Steny Hoyer has it."
The message of this commercial and two others airing this week is precisely the one Hoyer has been emphasizing in person for the last month: With more than a decade of service in the legislature, he has the experience to deal with the complexities of Congress. By inference, Scott the small-town mayor, does not.
The commercials, which will have cost some $40,000 or a quarter of the expected budget of the Hoyer campaign, also accomplish several other tasks for Hoyer in the short space of 30 seconds.
They undercut Scott's claims that Hoyer is "ultra liberal" and, with the flag imagery and quotes from him about the need for a strong defense, project the moderate image that Hoyer has cultivated throughout this campaign.
By showing him in two of the ads with his jacket off, responding casually to questions from groups of people, they help to counteract Hoyer's past reputation as being somewhat stiff and too slick. Scott has tried to use this image of Hoyer to her advantage by calling herself the "people person" candidate and therefore the rightful heir to the constituent-oriented Spellman.
Like their counterparts in the Hoyer campaign, Scott's media consultants have polled and analyzed to develop a television advertising package that plays up her strengths and minimizes her weaknesses. Her strength, they believe, is the "people person" image she has cultivated, and this is playe dup in each advertisement. Her greatest weakness is her party affiliation, which never is mentioned in the ads -- even when there are endorsements from such well-known Republicans as U.S. Sen. Charles McC. (Mac) Mathias.
If she is to win, however, Scott cannot just broadcast her qualifications and endorsemetns from political personalities. She must convince several thousand Democrats in this 3-to-1 Democratic county to abandon their party's nominee and vote for her instead, a switch that has occurred in Prince George's only once in the last seven years.
So Scott's commercials, following her campaign strategy, subtly and directly go after Hoyer's support by portraying him as untrustworthy. In two commericals that have been filmed but not aired, Hoyer is referred to disdainfully as a machine politician because of his role in forming and running the county's one-powerful Democratic Party organization during the 1970s.
In another, reminiscent of the controversial and negative advertisments used effectively in the 1980 elections by the National Conservative Political Action Committee against targeted liberal legislators, Hoyer's "lip service" to cutting government and reducing spending are contrasted unfavorably with "his record" in Annapolis.
And in one commercial that is supposed to air today, three allegedly misleading campaign claims are listed and a voice off-camera says, "It's not a pretty picture is it?" A shot of Hoyer looking downcast and dejected is then shown and the voice says, "Elect Audrey Scott. We can trust her."
Scott's advertisments, which will cost $100,000, or nearly half the campaign budget, undoubtedly will give her some increase in needed name recognition. But the spots also have provoked charges that she is running a negative campaign -- "reminiscent of Richard Nixon and dirty tricks," as one top Hoyer campaign member put it -- that Hoyer's people say will result in a backlash against her.
Scott obviously worries about this, for at the last minute this week she withdrew the two most controversial ads: the one that called Hoyer a machine politician. However, her staff workers say, the ads are likely to be run in the last week if she appears to be trailing her opponent as badly as two polls recently indicated.