The presidential video campaign that America sees nightly is finishing with a burst of television pitches that frame the choice as a struggle between Feel Good and Feel Guilt.
President Reagan's campaign is ending as it began, with a recycling of his opening "feel-good" commercials and rally themes that remind people of what the polls say they already believe -- that "America is back."
Democratic challenger Walter F. Mondale's campaign is ending far differently than it began -- with strong ads and appeals aimed at evoking guilt in the many Democrats who now say they will vote for Reagan.
But Mondale's greatest problem in this final week is that his most awesome opponent has been not Reagan, but the evening news.
Night after night, viewers have been bombarded with words and numbers bearing the same message, that Mondale's cause is hopeless and his candidacy is doomed. Last Tuesday, after NBC's Tom Brokaw announced the NBC poll giving Reagan an "overpowering" 24-point lead, correspondent Lisa Myers opened her Mondale coverage in Duluth by saying:
"Having finally escaped the shadows of Hubert Humphrey and Jimmy Carter, having silenced cries of wimp, Mondale came home to ask those who know him best to save him from further indignity -- from what could be the worst defeat in the history of presidential politics . . . . With polls so bleak he no longer discusses them, with his situation deteriorating by the hour, Mondale asked for one final favor a victory in his home state ."
And that's the way it was on Thursday, when ABC News' Brit Hume began his piece on Mondale's huge Manhattan Garment District rally by saying, "If the polls are right, Walter Mondale's about to get blitzed. He might as well have gone over Niagara Falls in a barrel, but he flew down from Buffalo to New York Civy."
CBS anchors and correspondents seemed to be making special efforts to report what the candidates said with a minimum of prognostication and characterization. But even their reports of Reagan hopes for a 50-state sweep amounted to the sort of legitimate news story that adds to a political groundswell.
On Friday, the other two networks also adopted reporting stances that put greater emphasis on what was said that day than on what may happen Election Day.
Mondale's anti-landslide strategy consists of trying to implant guilt in many Democrats who are telling reporters and pollsters that they are better off now than they were four years ago, that America is back and that they are voting for Reagan.
Mondale's five-minute television finale opens with the narrator saying, "This is a fight about whether America is really back -- or can we do better?" The ad is scheduled to air on networks at least 20 times.
After a campaign of uneven television commercial performances and mixed messages, Mondale advisers have made a stronger finish, with this five-minute ad and several similar new 30-second spots.
Mondale's five-minute finale features children looking hopeful, elderly women looking sorrowful and farmers looking scornful. The sorrow and the scorn are directed at Reagan programs. The narrator's words are directed at straying Democrats.
"Here is the future," the narrator says. "And you -- alone in the voting booth with your conscience -- will leave them a legacy. Make it one of economic opportunity for all, of a Supreme Court free to judge for liberty, of an end to the arms race, at last . . . . Some say you can't win the presidency on the values of decency, fairness and economic opportunity -- but if one of us can't win on those values, then none of us can. For those values are America. Tuesday your vote does matter -- for all of us. Do what's right."
New Mondale ads pitch arms control by showing children, eyes uplifted in hope and wonder -- when, suddenly, missiles blast out of silos and into the sky as all of this is set to the music of the folk-rock song, "Teach Your Children."
In another, elderly women, their voices all but breaking, talk about the hardships and fiscal realities of being old in the Reagan years.
Reagan has aired his own ad in which a narrator takes viewers on a tour of a supermarket, noting how much higher bread, milk and bacon would have been "if Carter-Mondale's inflation continued."
But the staple of the Reagan campaign was the original series of "feel-good" ads, and his strategists opted to come full circle.
One ad opens with those gently blurred shots of dawn on the water, of newspaper boys in the city, as the narrator soothingly notes, "It's morning again in America. Today more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country's history . . . nearly 2,000 families today will buy new homes, more than at any time in the past four years. This afternoon, 6,500 young men and women will be married."
Much to the chagrin of Reagan's ad experts, the president's political advisers also insisted on closing with less creative spots that just feature Reagan talking. In a five-minute fireside-chat shot inside the White House, he tells viewers about what is wrong with his critics.
"Rather than run down America, they should give you a pat on the back, Reagan says. "With you back in charge, we've turned the corner. America is on the move again."
The extent of Mondale's problems are told not only in the numbers of the polls, but in the numbers of the television ad time purchases. For in the final days, when the Democratic presidential nominee needs to pound his message in the hope of halting Reagan's surge, Reagan is outspending Mondale significantly -- 20 percent to 50 percent more in the last 10 days.
Both are spending about the same on the networks. But Reagan officials are spending four times as much as Mondale's on spot-time purchases on stations in every state, as the challenger allocated far more early spending to field and support resources than did the president.
Mondale officials have canceled most of their ads in the South, leaving only minimal purchases in Arkansas and Georgia and modest buys in the border states of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri.
Mondale will spend about $23 million on television this fall. Reagan will spend close to $30 million.
Reagan's prospects are further fueled by $7 million the Republican National Committee is spending on television ads.
And the incumbent's message received another boost -- this one indirect but free of charge -- when ABC's "Nightline" doubled its time slot for a powerful and memorable hour-long special edition Thursday commemorating the fifth anniversary of the Carter-Mondale-era crisis that led to the show's creation and helped make Ronald Reagan what he is today.
The show began with scenes of blindfolded hostages and fanatic captors as host Ted Koppel evoked memories of his nightly epics titled "America Held Hostage." "Tonight we'll look back at one of the longest and most painful peacetime ordeals in American history, the hostage crisis in Iran," he said.
The show ended with Koppel -- in a personal comment -- excoriating former president Jimmy Carter at length for having riveted global attention on the hostage drama. "There's only one thing that terrorists cannot abide, and that's to be ignored," he said. "Perhaps it's expecting too much of the media to ignore them, but our leaders should know better."