Democratic senatorial candidate Richard J. Davis is the millionaire banker posing in a construction worker's hard hat. His Republican opponent, Paul S. Trible Jr., is the congressman whose TV commercials catch him in an Air Force jet pilot's flight suit, though he has never served in the armed forces nor piloted a plane.
With little more than a week left until election day, Virginia's senatorial candidates are airing the last commercials in a media campaign that will cost more than $1.5 million -- more than the two candidates have spent on any other aspect of their campaigns and almost half of their total campaign budgets. Indeed, two thirds of the $684,000 Davis has spent so far has gone to broadcast advertising.
"For good or for bad, we live in an age where much of the public gets its information from television and television advertising," says Neil Cotiaux, a former radio news reporter turned GOP press spokesman. "The era of the flatbed truck is gone. The era of the air-conditioned studio is here."
In a televised debate this week, the candidates spent more time arguing about their 30-second TV spots than they did discussing American foreign policy. "Negative advertising . . . misleading . . . unfair," is how Trible has characterized a Davis spot that claims the representative's absenteeism record is the worst of any Virginia congressman in a decade.
" Trible's advertising has been extremely negative," counters Davis campaign manager James Carville, "and this campaign is going to defend itself with the facts."
Prompting all these charges has been a flurry of ads from both the Trible and Davis campaigns that glorify their own candidacies and subtly denigrate the opponent -- all in 30 or 60 seconds.
There's the Davis ad that his campaign workers call "The Shirker," which displays an empty leather chair while a mellow-voiced announcer says that Trible ranks 399th of 435 congressmen in attendance this year. "Could you hold your job with a record like this?" the announcer asks. "How about a promotion?"
Another Trible radio ad recounts Davis' opposition to capital punishment. "Dick Davis doesn't seem to think," it says, "that we should have a law that allows us to say as citizens we have rights and will not tolerate extreme crime."
It's all part of the final climax in a neck-and-neck Senate race that pits veteran image-builder Robert Squier, the Davis consultant who last year helped design Charles Robb's winning campaign against J. Marshall Coleman for governor, against the little-known team of Ian and Betsy Weinschel, a Mount Airy, Md., couple whose media work for Trible is their first solo statewide effort.
Trible has devoted more than $900,000 of his estimated $1.2 million budget to media, in hopes of wooing vast numbers of undecided voters who are crucial to this race. Recent polls have shown the two candidates in a virtual dead heat, with almost 20 percent of the electorate still undecided.
Up to $400,000 of that could be spent to buy air time in the next 10 days, his aides say -- an amount more than double the $175,000 the Davis camp has budgeted for the same time period. "I think the media's going to put us over," says Trible campaign manager Judy Peachee.
Despite a late fundraising start, the Democrats haven't skimped in media spending. "I feel good about the race," says Carville. " . . . I think our stuff is twice as good as theirs."
Adding to the media price tag this year is the cost of extensive advertising in the Washington television market. While many past statewide campaigns have avoided heavy TV advertising in Washington, polls this year show that Northern Virginia has a higher percentage of undecided voters than anywhere else in the state.
For Squier and Davis, the strategy was to focus on several factors viewed as advantages to the 61-year-old Democrat: his service as mayor of his native Portsmouth and as the state's lieutenant governor, his background as a mortgage banker, his military service, his white-haired patriarchal appearance -- and what Squier describes as "character."
"He's the kind of person you'd like to spend a lot of time with," says Squier. "He's the kind of person you'd loan money to."
Squier's ads feature a shirt-sleeved Davis on the campaign trail, talking about unemployment and Social Security with people on the street.
"Ideally, what I'd really like to do is put Trible and Davis on a bus and send them around the state and have everybody meet them," says Squier, who is earning a $50,000 fee (plus expenses) to revive the quasi-documentary style he used successfully last year with Robb. "But since I can't do that, I'll do the next best thing. I want to let the candidate speak for himself -- I don't want to insert myself between the candidate and the viewers."
In one such ad Davis is shown at a construction site wearing a hard hat -- not because he was courting the blue-collar vote, Squier explains, but because federal regulations require that hard hats be worn on construction sites.
The Trible plan was to paint the 35-year-old congressman as a young, vital, hard-working public servant with lots of experience in the federal government, a man whose conservative record contrasts sharply with his more liberal opponent. "We want people to look at this election and say, 'Which of these men will take America in the direction that I want it to go?' " says Bob Weed, a Trible strategist. "If they do that, we'll win."
At the same time, Trible planners wanted to counter the Democratic charges that Trible is a cold, ambitious hustler, and show that he is really a warm, caring public servant.
The result was two sets of Trible TV ads. One features upbeat footage of Trible striding through the Capitol while bright red and blue graphics cascade across the screen, spelling out "strong defense" and "cutting taxes." A smooth-voiced announcer intones: "Paul Trible -- Experience for Virginia."
"We wanted to show that he has a heck of a lot of experience for a man his age," says Weed. "People won't know it if you don't tell them."
Another set of ads shows Trible in shirtsleeves and tie, walking purposefully through a peaceful meadow and talking about his dreams for Virginia's citizens. "You know you've got to care about people to represent them," he says as the music swells. Then comes the voice-over: "Paul Trible -- a man who puts Virginia first."
The photo of Trible in full flight suit, says Weed, was meant to demonstrate Trible's experience as a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
"Part of your job on the Armed Services Committee is going out and looking at stuff," says Weed, adding that the photo was taken four or five years ago while Trible was examining equipment at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton. "He was looking at stuff."