Mud-slinging is a TV turn-off voters Ad explosion proves a turn- off

THE US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS
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The Independent Online
DAVID USBORNE

Manchester, New Hampshire

Laura Fox sweeps out of the Aaah-Some Coffee Shop on Manchester's Elm Street and climbs into her black Escort, a double espresso in hand. Among the myriad bumper stickers on the car, one stands out: "Kill TV!".

Like anyone in New Hampshire who owns a television set, Ms Fox, 29, is feeling overwhelmed by the tide of political advertising that is clogging the state's air-waves in the run-up to the crucial Republican primary on 20 February. She is also not a little infuriated by the negativity of most of it.

"I'm defecting," she announced flatly as she ordered her coffee. "It is all just so crazy. It's all just mudslinging: this person said this thing and that person said another; that person smoked pot 20 years ago and the other did something else. Oh God. I'm just jaded about the whole thing."

That the sheer volume of television advertising by candidates has set a new record this time is well established. During evening prime time, most New Hampshire viewers can expect to see at least two 30-second political spots in every commercial break.

The ad explosion, triggered principally by Steve Forbes, the political neophyte who is now leading the pack in opinion polls here, threatens to shatter the New Hampshire legend that it is only the state left in America where candidates do battle face to face with the voters, in the civic centres and at rotary club breakfasts. "Money, TV Shatters Notions about Primary," bemoaned the Concord Sunday Monitor.

At the last count Mr Forbes had lavished about $11m (pounds 7.3m) on television advertising in several states with primary races. He can continue pumping the cash, because, unlike the other candidates, all of it is his own - earned from the Forbes publishing empire - and therefore is not subject to campaign spending limits.

More than the sheer density of the Forbes onslaught, however, it is the unexpected biliousness of it that is attracting attention. Critics charge that at least two-thirds of his output has been attack advertisements designed to wound the other candidates. Even those trailing far behind, such as Lamar Alexander, the former Tennessee Governor, and Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, have not escaped the Forbes acid.

"I think they have a scorched-earth theory," one Gramm aide complained recently. "And once you commit yourself to a campaign like this, you can't stop. Anyone who sticks their head up out of the foxhole, you have to shoot." Mr Alexander has taken to calling Mr Forbes, "Malcolm the Mudslinger."

Where the air waves have become especially brutal, however, is in the battle between Mr Forbes and his main rival, Senator Bob Dole. A week ago, the Dole campaign launched an assault against Mr Forbes' 17 per cent flat tax, the proposal that first elevated him as a serious contender. The Dole camp seized on a study suggesting that under the proposal, home- owners on modest incomes would end up paying more tax. The spot concludes with the dark warning: "Steve Forbes: Untested. Untruthful."

The Forbes side has struck back, citing a subsequent and, by all accounts, more credible study that shows that most middle-class tax-payers would in fact pay less tax under the proposal. "But knowing his ad is false, Bob Dole continues to run it. "THAT'S WRONG!", screams the Forbes retort. And as with all the Forbes anti-Dole spots, it concludes: "Bob Dole: Washington Values; Steve Forbes: Conservative Values."

So far, at least, the insults being exchanged have been about policy and about the veracity of each of the candidates. No one has yet attempted smears. Even so, it is hard find to any prospective voter who is not distressed by the warfare being waged nightly in their living rooms.

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