New Right efforts to defeat liberal and moderate politicians, such as Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.), will be less successful this year than in the past because candidates are more prepared for the hard-hitting, negative television advertisements and other tactics of New Right groups, several Democratic consultants said during a workshop on the opening day of the Democratic Party's national conference here.
The consultants, participants in one of about two dozen "political skills" sessions for party workers and candidates, said that candidates and incumbents who find themselves targeted by such groups as the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) should focus attention on the "smear" tactics of the conservative groups, while continuing to pursue the issues of the campaign.
The panelists included Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who was involved in the 1980 campaign of several incumbent senators successfully targeted by New Right groups, consultant Matt Reese and direct-mail specialist Roger Craver.
While the workshop produced few specific suggestions for combating New Right campaign tactics, participants, including several members of the Maryland delegation and Virginia Democrat Ira Lechner, the challenger to Republican Rep. Frank Wolf, heard some general advice and were told not to panic if they are targeted by NCPAC.
The participants also were shown an array of television commercials produced by NCPAC, as well as responses to the ads that accused NCPAC supporters of being outsiders intent on distorting the truth for their own political purposes.
The ads included several commercials attacking Sarbanes that were shown widely in Maryland last year and again recently for several weeks. Sarbanes and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) are the chief targets on NCPAC's 1982 "hit list," according to Joe Steffen, NCPAC press secretary.
Steffen said in a telephone conversation that NCPAC already has spent $454,400 in its attempt to unseat Maryland's junior senator and will spend at least $100,000 more before the November general election. Unlike traditional political advertising, which boosts one candidate over another, the NCPAC ads do not urge support for any of the Republicans vying for the nomination to oppose Sarbanes. Instead, they attack Sarbanes head-on, calling him a "do-nothing" senator who supports school busing, charges that the senator's aides say are a complete distortion of his record.
Sarbanes, who arrived here after the workshop had ended, said that NCPAC's early attack has prompted him to "intensify my efforts and begin planning and raising money much sooner" than he originally had planned. In the last three months, Sarbanes said, he has raised $250,000, and his report to the Federal Election Commission next week will show that he has collected about $800,000 so far. He said that he expects to spend between $1.3 million and $1.5 million in his campaign for reelection.
"There was a spontaneous reaction to the NCPAC campaign , both from within and without the state," Sarbanes said. "Many people are enraged at their tactics, which they perceive as alien to our democratic process."
Sarbanes reacted to the NCPAC television ads and charges by replying with his positions on issues, without appearing to panic. As Sarbanes' aide Peter Marudis put it: "Our position has been to do our job and then, when it comes to the election, bring our record to the people."
And while Sarbanes' campaign aides have attacked NCPAC for distorting his record, they have left much of the attack to others, which was one of the tips suggested by Reese at today's workshop. So that the senator would not appear too preoccupied with NCPAC when it first ran its anti-Sarbanes spots, a liberal political action committee, PRO-PAC, took the lead in responding by airing its own television ads attacking NCPAC.
The consultants at the workshop, like the Sarbanes campaign aides, were quick to point out that the New Right's tactics remain a problem, despite increased recognition of the group's techniques.
As Hart acknowledged, "They do their job and they do it well."