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Democrats mull risk, reward of attack ads

Aggressive stance can have backlash

With two weeks to go before the Democratic primary, each of the candidates faces an urgent question: whether to launch attack ads on television, and risk the backlash that could sink a candidacy.

Compared with previous contests, the Democratic race has been a generally cordial affair. At this point in the Democratic primary four years ago, a slew of negative ads had been unleashed.

But the dynamic of this year's tight, three-way race creates unusually high stakes for the contenders. Deval L. Patrick, a former civil rights and corporate lawyer, has built his come-from-nowhere candidacy on a theme of hope, and attacking his opponents would seriously undercut that message.

And with polls showing Patrick in a solid position and possessing a strong grass-roots organization, more pressure is building on his rivals, businessman Christopher Gabrieli and Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, to shake up the dynamic of the race, some political operatives say. The most obvious way to do that would be to attack Patrick in negative ads.

But if either Gabrieli or Reilly airs hard-edged ads against Patrick, it risks not only driving up his own negative ratings among Democratic voters, but also inadvertently boosting the other candidate in the race. An attack by Reilly on Patrick, for example, may help Gabrieli.

Officials from the three campaigns declined to detail their media strategy to the Globe. But it is clear that the question of how aggressive to be in the final stretch of the race is now a key focus.

``Gabrieli and Reilly have to change the tone of the campaign and get the voters to take a different look at Patrick," said Jeffrey Berry, professor of political science at Tufts University.

In what could be a prelude, Reilly and Gabrieli adopted a more critical tone late last week, highlighting Patrick's position on taxes. Reilly's campaign asserted that voters could not trust Patrick, saying he has wavered on the question of whether to cut taxes. Gabrieli aired an ad contrasting his plan for a phased-in tax cut with Patrick's opposition to the rollback, and with the support of Reilly and Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey for an immediate reduction.

Gabrieli's campaign manager, Joseph Ganley, said in an interview that Gabrieli will not resort to tough attack ads but focus on ``specifics and substance."

``With any advertising situation, you have to be careful going after your opponents, that it is not in a nasty and personal way, otherwise it will come back to bite you," he said.

Democratic Party Chairman Philip W. Johnston has been keeping in close touch with the three camps, and has urged them to refrain from attack ads, saying they would only benefit the Republican ticket in the general election.

Johnston said the new Gabrieli ad, which uses images of Patrick and Reilly and contrasts their positions on the income tax rollback with his , could not be considered an attack. Johnston has created a panel, which includes him, former governor Michael Dukakis, and Cameron F. Kerry, US Senator John F. Kerry's brother, to monitor the advertising in the primary election.

``I trust and hope it won't happen," Johnston said, referring to a full-scale ad war of negative spots. ``There's always the temptation, but my advice to them is to forget the polls and focus on building their field organizations," Johnston said.

Dwight Robson, who served as campaign manager for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Shannon O'Brien in 2002, said that sometimes candidates can turn opponents' negative attacks against them, as O'Brien did that year. After leading the primary race for months, O'Brien came under attack in August from all three of her rivals, and by Labor Day was slipping in the polls. She aired a clever ad taking advantage of the fact that all the candidates criticizing her were males.

``Whoa, boys," declared a narrator over an old black-and-white film of cowboys drawing their horses. ``OK, pardn'r, how about the facts. . . ." The ad then offered O'Brien's defense of the charges and concluded: ``Say no to the attacks." The ad halted her slide in the polls and damaged the standing of others, allowing her to win the nomination easily.

``You're taking a big risk when you run negative ads, particularly if they have a hard edge to them," Robson said.

Patrick remains the likeliest target for attack ads, and his aides appear to be preparing for an assault on his career in the corporate world. The Patrick campaign has argued in the past that at Coca-Cola and Texaco, and on the board of Ameriquest Mortgage, Patrick pushed for progressive policies and reforms from the inside.

``Patrick's response will be critical," Berry said. ``He wants to appear above the fray, but he can't afford to turn the other cheek."

Support for Patrick seems to be withstanding criticism. A union-backed group from New York, Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, has launched an effort to highlight the candidate's ties to Coke, saying he earned millions defending the companies against allegations of human rights abuses and pollution in developing countries.

While it has stirred some controversy, the effort -- mostly small demonstrations at Patrick appearances and modest media coverage -- has yet to dent Patrick's standing, said Berry. He said the allegations are so tough that they don't fit with the public's view of Patrick.

``You can't be over the top," Berry said. ``You have to keep the criticism reasonable. Killer Coke is too harsh. It doesn't fit with Patrick's public image."

A Globe poll taken two weeks ago showed Patrick at 31 percent, Gabrieli at 30 percent, and Reilly at 27. And there is little evidence that the dynamic has significantly shifted since then.

As they mull ed their advertising strategy over the Labor Day weekend, the three campaigns were equally focused on what is expected to be a pivotal event of the campaign: Thursday night's debate. The 7 p.m. debate is viewed as the most critical face-off yet.

While Gabrieli and Reilly may seek to sharpen their message for the debate, for Patrick the best outcome may be for a low-key forum with no dramatic moments.

``This debate has the potential to dramatically reshape the race -- or keep it exactly where it is," said Will Keyser, a senior Reilly adviser. ``Given the wide-open nature of the race, a misstep by any of the candidates could potentially shape the race to the advantage of one or both of their opponents."

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