Bush, Gore campaigns tainted with controversy
By ERIN LARUFFA
The word "RATS" recently flashed across American television screens, courtesy of the Republican Party.
But no one is really sure if the word was intended to be there. Although the Republican National Committee (RNC) was actually for the ad, the campaign of GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush has faced numerous questions about it.
In the commercial, the words "bureaucrats decide" appear on screen, intended to criticize Gore's prescription drug plan. However, in one frame, "RATS," part of "bureaucrats," appears on the screen.
The word remains on screen for only one-thirtieth of a second, but it is the largest word to appear in the commercial. Critics suggested that the ad was an attempt to subliminally create a negative opinion of Gore.
"Nobody does that accidentally," said Ted Mandell, a professor in Notre Dame's Film, Television and Theatre department. "[I am] 99 percent positive it was intentional."
Although the commercial's producer, Alex Castellanos, denies that the word was used intentionally, Mandell explained that someone would have had to type into a computer any word that appeared on the screen.
"They probably watched that ad a million times … Any editor worth his weight would have picked it up immediately," Mandell said. "That would make me think that they were aware of it."
However, Mandell added that it is possible that neither the RNC nor the Bush campaign staff were aware that the word appeared.
The tape would have gone through many hands, Mandell explained, and therefore someone else could have inserted it. He pointed out that animators have inserted single-celled frames into Disney movies as jokes the company itself never wanted in the film.
Although the ad reflects negatively on the Bush campaign, most Americans will merely dismiss it as part of politics, explained Notre Dame government professor Benjamin Radcliff. As a result, if Bush loses, no one will look back at the ad controversy as the "defining moment" that cost Bush the election, Radcliff said.
Negative ads are not new in political campaigns, though.
"Republicans have been running negative campaigns at least since [George W.] Bush's father," said Radcliff.
Just as the "bureaucrats" ad is not unique as an attack ad, it is neither unique as a campaign slip-up. In fact, Bush has recently faced other controversies because of errors he or his campaign made.
For example, at a campaign stop a few weeks ago, thinking he was speaking privately to vice presidential running mate Dick Cheney, Bush referred to a New York Times reporter as an "a--hole."
Unbeknownst to Bush and Cheney, the microphone they were standing near was still on, and people in the audience heard the comment.
Despite the fact that Bush received negative media attention due to the incident, it probably will not have a significant impact on the election, according to Radcliff.
However, the problem with such controversies is that they get a candidate "off message," Radcliff added. The media covers the slip-ups that negatively affect a campaign, therefore detracting attention from a candidate's main message.
The need to "stay on message" is a challenge all campaigns must face, according to Saint Mary's political science professor Patrick Pierce.
"You want to control the agenda of the campaign," he said. "If you're continuously having to respond to charges that either harm you or are unrelated [to your message] you're fighting a much more difficult battle."
Campaigns must then "move the agenda over to the issues you really want to talk" about, Pierce said. "The way in which it might have an impact is in an accumulation of incidents."
In other words, if mistakes pile up, the sum of those errors could negatively impact a campaign.
Such mistakes reflect on a candidate's "personal traits," Pierce explained. He added that such traits are often the most important factor to voters — even more important than issues such as the economy. Therefore, repeated mistakes, which can lead voters to view the candidate as incompetent, are potentially damaging.
Bush has also been plagued by his tendency to mispronounce words, to use improper grammar and to use malapropisms. Pierce and Radcliff agreed that these mistakes could hurt Bush at the polls.
"Bush is seen to have a personality advantage [but is] thought to be a lightweight," Radcliff said. Therefore, whenever he mispronounces a word, he "reinforces public doubt" about his ability to be president.
Gore, on the other hand, has a much different public persona.
"Gore is thought to be hard-working and really bright, but stiff," Radcliff said. For that reason, mispronouncing a word would be unlikely to affect how voters view him.
As a result, Bush's frequent verbal slips are "one of the things to watch in the debates," Pierce said.
"Al Gore is an aggressive debater. He absolutely will pounce on Bush," Pierce said. "The media is then going to portray Bush in the debates as being not particularly competent."
As a result, some voters who agree with Bush on certain issues may be less likely to vote for him because they will fear he is incompetent, according to Pierce.
The Bush campaign also appears to have made a tactical maneuver in respect to Florida, the winner of which receives 25 electoral votes.
Bush apparently has a "false sense of security" in Florida, where Bush's brother Jeb is governor, Pierce explained. The Bush campaign thought Bush would easily win Florida, according to Pierce, but recent polls indicate a near dead heat between Gore and Bush in the state.
"It's a particularly embarrassing situation when you're brother's the governor," said Pierce.
He explained that campaigns make strategic decisions to ignore some states — either because the candidate will clearly win or clearly lose — in order to allow them to focus on states believed to be marginal.
"I think they screwed up in the sense of not having been on the ball," said Radcliff, adding that he still believes Bush will carry Florida.
Yet another problem challenging the Bush campaign recently involves a possible internal information leak. Tom Downey, a former Congressman who has been helping Gore prepare for the upcoming presidential debates, received a videotape and other material related to Bush's debate rehearsal.
On Saturday, Gore officials suspended Michael Doyne, an assistant to the campaign's field director. According to an ABCNEWS source, Doyne stated that Gore had a mole working inside Bush's campaign. Gore denied Doyne's claim and said his campaign does not have access to any secret Bush campaign information. Gore has also said that his campaign staff would turn over to the FBI any material it received, as Downey did when he received the videotape of Bush's debate preparation.
The Bush campaign claims that only senior members of the staff had access to the materials. The Gore campaign gave the package — which was postmarked in Austin, Texas — to the FBI after receiving it on Sept. 13. The FBI is now investigating the incident.
If Downey had not turned over the tape, the incident could have led to a "mini-scandal," according to Radcliff. If the public found out that the Gore campaign had watched the video, it would have looked as though the vice president had an unfair advantage in the debates.
Because Downey chose an "incredibly conscientious way of dealing" with a difficult situation, the incident reflects well on the Gore campaign, according to Pierce.
In this week's Newsweek poll, Gore leads Bush 46 to 43 percent among registered voters. However, a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll shows Bush leading Gore 47 to 46 percent, a statistical dead heat given the poll's margin of error.
Of course, the Gore campaign has had its share of mistakes as well.
Critics have recently complained of embellishments Gore has made in speeches, including one involving the price of prescription drugs.
Pierce believes Gore's tendency to exaggerate certain facts has declined, however, since the beginning of the campaign.
"I think that he's probably learned from some of his early statements," Pierce said. "It's been mostly the stuff of late-night talk show hosts."
All News Stories for Tuesday, September 26, 2000