Several Miss. candidates use attack ads against opponents

Published 4:58 pm Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Experts say those campaign attack ads that proliferate on the airwaves are being fueled by several factors from technology to bitterly divided political parties.

Internet bloggers and independent interest groups have contributed to the onslaught of negative campaign ads this election cycle, said Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University.

“It’s no different than what you did 50 years ago, leaning across the back of a truck at the country store,” Wiseman said. “We just didn’t have the Internet.”

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Wiseman said he had been approached by several people on the street who asked why candidates were using attack ads to win votes, so he did some research.

“The state, and the nation, is divided 50-50 politically. Every single seat and every single position you’re elected for counts for whether or not the party gains superiority,” Wiseman said.

Bloggers’ political messages can be seen by millions over the Internet with the click of a mouse. Wiseman said candidates also can find ways to manipulate the traditional print and broadcast media.

“If you’re a candidate and you can come up with something negative about your opponent that’s going to stick, the news media is going to carry the ball for you. It’s simply become a strategy,” Wiseman said.

The influence of independent interest groups was demonstrated in the Democratic primary race of longtime Insurance Commissioner George Dale, who was defeated by Gary Anderson.

A lawyers’ group led by wealthy attorney Richard Scruggs ran a series of television, radio and newspaper ads that portrayed Dale as being ineffective on behalf of Mississippi policyholders after Hurricane Katrina.

Anderson now faces Republican state Sen. Mike Chaney in the Nov. 6 general election, but Scruggs’ group doesn’t appear to be targeting Chaney.

“The main thing they wanted to do was get at Dale, which they did,” Wiseman said.

Studies have shown that positive ads must be viewed four or five times to resonate with viewers, but it only takes one showing for a negative one, said Joseph Parker, a political science professor at the University of Southern Mississippi.

“If it didn’t work, people would have stopped using it,” he said.

In recent weeks, Republican Gov. Haley Barbour has assailed Democrat John Arthur Eaves Jr. in television ads, accusing his challenger of suing the nation’s military and having no vision for Mississippi. Eaves’ ads have criticized Barbour of putting big business before the needs of working-class people.

State Auditor Phil Bryant, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, has branded his challenger, Democrat state Rep. Jamie Franks, a liberal. Franks has blamed Bryant for botching the state investigation into a failed beef plant that cost the state millions of dollars.

The attorney general’s race also has taken a harsh tone. Republican Al Hopkins has run ads that claim Democrat incumbent Jim Hood made multimillion-dollar deals with his campaign donors.

Hood’s ads countered that Hopkins was “making up all kinds of stories” and that the Republican’s spots were “false ads paid for by big insurance.”

So far, one race that’s had scant negative campaigning is the contest for secretary of state. Democrat Rob Smith, who has served in the state House and Senate, said he has no intentions of digging up dirt against his Republican opponent, attorney Delbert Hosemann.

“There’s no negative ads,” Smith said last week while recording his latest campaign spot. “We’re going to run on our own merit.”

Hosemann, who won his GOP primary with a boost from a lighthearted ad that featured an older woman who couldn’t remember his name, will do what it takes to win, said his campaign spokesman Casey Phillips.

“At this point, we’re going to work on getting our message about Delbert to voters,” Phillips said. “We obviously know that sometimes you need to take different tactics at the end of the campaign.”