News Analysis – Decision 2000: On the Attack

Image Makers to N.Y. Hopefuls: Go Negative
The big news in an otherwise boring election year, where the presidential race has yet to ignite interest, is the New York Senate race. In the Empire State, it’s the Blonde vs. the Bland.
Plain. Centrist. Middle-of-the-road. That’s the image Rick Lazio likes. The Republican candidate for Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s former seat calls his bus tour through his home state the Mainstream Express. And he wants his advertising to introduce a boyish face that says “moderate” to voters.
Conversely, the image makers in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s camp want to unmask her opponent in the guise of informing voters. The message implicit in Clinton’s latest attack ads is don’t be fooled. Lazio is a lot more conservative than you might think.
True, it hasn’t been the mud-slinging clash of the titans expected when New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani was still in the race. But in this heat, where the contestants are neck and neck in the polls, the ads have gone negative with four months left to go.
They are just the opening salvo. The heavier fire is yet to come.
“I think it will just get uglier,” predicts Donny Deutsch, who served with the Clinton/Gore campaign in 1992. “Hillary is trying to take off the emperor’s clothes to show Lazio is a lot more conservative. Lazio wants people to see him as a nice, friendly, good-looking face. The less you know, the better.”
Even without Giuliani, the campaign is expected to be the costliest Senate race in history. Certainly, it’s the most closely watched, granting it a status normally reserved for the presidential contest.
This Senate race, however, offers several twists. It’s the first time a First Lady has run for office. Hillary Clinton is also campaigning for a seat in a state with the most expensive media market in the country. Political observers say the candidates will likely shell out more than $50 million.
In another unusual move, Clinton turned to Madison Avenue shop DeVito/Verdi instead of the usual group of political consultants. Partners Sal DeVito and Ellis Verdi have no previous political experience, but they do have a record of wrestling with Giuliani.
The mayor wanted the agency’s ad for New York magazine, which read, “Possibly the only good thing in New York Rudy hasn’t taken credit for,” removed from city buses. A judge rejected the mayor’s attempt.
DeVito/Verdi is also considered street smart when it comes to New York City, and some of its ads are clearly provocative. The agency’s work for the American Civil Liberties Union angered the New York Police Department by featuring 41 bullet holes sprinkled with the words, “You have the right to remain silent.” The copy declared that “the NYPD gave Amadou Diallo the right to remain silent. And they did it without ever saying a word.”
Says Verdi: “We are known to fight for our clients as Hillary will be known to fight for New Yorkers.” Besides DeVito/Verdi, the campaign’s creative group, known as “Team Hillary,” consists of media consultant Mandy Grunwald and pollster Mark Penn.
The simplicity of the campaign slogan–“Hillary”–acknowledges that the ad team doesn’t need to introduce this candidate to voters. Instead, in one of the First Lady’s recent attack ads, the script begins with the word “Update” in white letters on a black screen. As the script scrolls down, the sound of a typewriter is heard and an announcer says: “Congress just defeated a plan–by only two votes –to lower home heating oil costs for New York and the Northeast. How did Rick Lazio vote? He didn’t. He skipped the vote. Rick Lazio. The more you know … the more you wonder.” (The last two lines are the tag in attack ads.)
Two more ads done in this style focus on health maintenance organizations and hate crimes.
“The all-type ads from Mrs. Clinton are good for her,” says Tom Messner of Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, who worked on George Bush’s campaign in 1988.
“The ads start from the standpoint of ‘We are more interested in content than in imagery. Boy, do we have something to say, and we hope to get your attention with the content rather than the messenger.’ ”
The Clinton camp does not characterize the spots as attack ads. “What the ads show is there is a clear difference on the issues,” says Clinton campaign spokeswoman Karen Dunn. “It is important for New Yorkers to understand what the differences are between candidates and where they stand.”
The political ad agency Murphy Pintak Gautier Hudome, of Falls Church, Va., sits in Lazio’s corner. Mike Murphy has experience working with Bob Dole and John McCain.
Thus far, the Lazio ads depict a hometown boy who is Mr. Nice Guy. Lazio’s wife and two daughters are prominently featured. In some ways, says Messner, the wholesome image makes Lazio a much tougher candidate for the Clinton team.
“Lazio doesn’t have the baggage that Rudy brought,” Messner says. “You could attack Rudy with impunity, but with Lazio, the voter has no negative assent to bring to it.”
But Lazio has recently learned a political lesson that Clinton knows only too well–public scrutiny is part of the game.
The Securities and Exchange Commission has been looking into whether Lazio violated insider-trading laws three years ago when he invested in a firm controlled by some of his largest contributors.
Ironically, Lazio was quick to respond to the First Lady’s attack ads with a few jabs of his own, even while promising to take a higher road.
“Mrs. Clinton, you can run a negative campaign about tearing people down,” he says in one 30-second spot. “I’m going to run a campaign about building New York up.”
Earlier in the commercial, he asks: “Why is she doing this? Because it’s a lot easier for Mrs. Clinton to attack me than to name a single thing she has ever done for New York.” (The Lazio campaign didn’t return calls at press time.)
Congressional Democrats see the face of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich behind Lazio’s bland exterior. “Lazio wants to be the Milquetoast candidate,” says David DiMartino, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
“Republicans like Lazio are noticing the issues people are concerned about and are painting themselves more moderate than they should be,” adds DiMartino.
Republicans counter that at least Lazio has a voting record. They also say that Clinton’s desire to depict Lazio as a hard-right ideologue will fail.
Despite GOP claims, Lazio did oppose a Democratic-sponsored patients’ bill of rights in the House that would have allowed people to sue HMOs, but supported a Republican version that sought tax deductions to help people pay medical premiums.
Lazio tells voters in one commercial that Clinton is trying to distort his voting record. “I voted for a patients’ bill of rights, and I oppose hate crimes,” he says. The First Lady’s “attempts to portray him as a Gingrich-like clone will not wash,” says one Republican insider.
For Hillary Clinton, the Senate election is her political future, which is why observers insist her ad campaign must be ultra-negative. In the end, this is a race about personalities. Voters respond viscerally; New Yorkers either love Hillary or hate her.
Lazio has the anti-Hillary vote, but will it be enough to catapult him into the Senate? And if Hillary launches some of her heaviest artillery too early in the campaign, will she have anything left for the weeks before the election?
The nation is watching. The race is too close to call, and conventional wisdom–celebrity beats a relative unknown–is passE.
This time, it’s personal. K