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Some Campaign Ads Accentuate the Positive


With national polls showing unfavorable ratings for the Republican Party and President Bush, some GOP candidates are taking a lesson from the old saying if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. They are running ads kissing up to Democrats.

NPR's Robert Smith reports.


ROBERT SMITH: Here's an ad that wouldn't be out of place at a Democrat fundraiser.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Announcer: Welfare rolls in Florida have dropped by 75% thanks to a law signed by Bill Clinton and written by our Congressman Clay Shaw.

SMITH: The ad celebrates the arrival of President Bill Clinton in South Florida, listing his many accomplishments and basking in his political sunshine.

(Soundbite of political ad)


Unidentified Announcer: So as Palm Beach County welcomes Bill Clinton to town, let's say thank you to Clay Shaw. He's independent and effective.

SMITH: And oh, yeah. He's a Republican, something the ad never mentions. Representative Shaw, by the way, voted to impeach Bill Clinton. The ad doesn't talk about that either.

Welcome to the topsy turvy world of political advertising this year. While few Republican candidates have aired commercials featuring President Bush, some in the GOP are perfectly willing to exploit whatever goodwill the Democrats may have earned.

Professor DARRELL WEST (Brown University): This is an example of political cross-dressing. Highly unusual in American politics.

SMITH: Darrell West is a political science professor at Brown University. He wrote a history of election advertising and says this trick might just work.

Professor WEST: This is a highly partisan political era, but yet voters don't like that. They actually are centrists. They're moderate. They believe in bipartisanship, and so we're seeing some candidates start to reach out across the political aisles in order to boost support for themselves.

SMITH: A spokesperson for Congressman Shaw says that his opponent was running negative ads tying Shaw to President Bush, so they thought they would point out that the congressman works with both sides of the aisle, something that might come in useful if the Republicans become the minority in the House.

Another candidate willing to use the Democratic buddy system is Republican Senator Conrad Burns of Montana. You'd think he was joined at the hip with Montana's Democratic Senator, Max Baucus.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Announcer: Baucus and Burns passed drug coverage for seniors, voted to make us less dependent on foreign oil and end the death tax. But Jon Tester opposes Baucus and Burns on all these issues that matter to Montana's future.

SMITH: But this ad shows how the trick can backfire, especially when the guy you mention, Senator Baucus, endorses your opponent.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Senator MAX BAUCUS (Democrat, Montana): You might have heard those ads from Conrad Burns using my name. Well, let me be clear. I support Jon Tester. The fact is, Senator Burns and I disagree on a lot of things.

SMITH: But lest you think that this is a sign of desperation by Republicans down in the polls, remember that the earliest example this season of a partisan switcheroo was run by a Democrat. Jim Webb, a Democratic candidate for the Senate from Virginia, used archive footage of a Ronald Reagan commencement speech in one of his ads.

(Soundbite of political ad)

President RONALD REAGAN: One man who sat where you do now is another member of our administration, Assistant Secretary of Defense James Webb, the most decorated member of his class.

SMITH: The president's widow, Nancy Reagan, asked the Webb campaign to stop using the ad, which just got the spot more attention. And maybe that's part of the strategy. In a season where each negative ad seems to reach new lows, perhaps the way to cut through the clutter is to say something nice.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.