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GOP Negative Ads Backfire In Alaska Governor Race

Republican stumbles after criticizing rival's good looks

CONFOUNDING the national trend, Democrats in Alaska have a good chance of retaking the governor's seat after the four-year administration of Republican Walter Hickel.

Even more surprising is the reason: The apparent failure of a series of attack ads.

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Negative advertising has become as much a part of American politics as campaign buttons and lawn signs. The reason: it's usually effective.

That apparently has not been the case, however, for Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Campbell.

Not long ago, Mr. Campbell was locked in a tight race with Democrat Tony Knowles, the former mayor of Anchorage. Then, Mr. Campbell began attacking his rival as a Clintonesque liberal, citing his support of gay rights, support of strict environmental rules - even asserting he is benefiting from movie-star good looks similar to the president.

The result now is that Mr. Campbell, an Anchorage businessman, trails his opponent by 11 points, according to a recent poll. Though Alaskan elections are notoriously volatile and unpredictable, pollster Marc Hellenthal says the race at this point is Democrat Knowles' to lose.

The winner will succeed Mr. Hickel, the maverick pro-development Republican who jumped to the fringe Alaskan Independence Party seven weeks before Election Day in 1990. Hickel won the 1990 race with just under 39 percent of the vote, beating Knowles and a moderate Republican. He recently rejoined the GOP and decided he would not seek a second term.

In this campaign, Hellenthal and other analysts say Campbell's first major stumble was commissioning a telephone poll of some 500 Alaskans that included a question asserting Knowles favors same-sex marriages. Knowles, who with a moderate Republican co-chaired a gay-rights committee in 1993 to fight job and housing discrimination, has never publicly supported homosexual marriages.

Then, a television advertisement falsely accused Knowles of plotting to spend the near-sacred Alaska Permanent Fund, the state's $14 billion oil-trust fund, which pays annual dividends to residents.

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Those assertions hurt Campbell's credibility, says Hellenthal, who criticized the Republican for ``saying things that aren't true and not having the documentation to back them up.''

One of the most noted Campbell campaign moves - one that inspired jokes by local disc jockeys - was a radio advertisement ridiculing Knowles' good looks. Knowles, 51, is an avid runner and cross-country skier, and his athletic appearance contrasts with that of the bald, chunky, 62-year-old Campbell.

``I was watching the news last night and I noticed something - President Bill Clinton is tall, has a shy smile, good hair. Some women tell me he's really good-looking. And then I noticed Tony Knowles - tall, shy smile, good hair, same thing with the women. But it doesn't stop there,'' a male voice intones in the radio spot.

The advertisement then accuses Knowles and Clinton of favoring high taxes and environmental restrictions. ``Coincidence? Or is it always this way when a guy's handsome and has good hair?''

Knowles is backed far more heavily by women voters than by men voters, according to Hellenthal's poll. But Knowles' most ardent support may be from Alaska Natives, who make up about 16 percent of the state's population and consider the former mayor a devoted ally.

The Alaska Federation of Natives, the state's largest Native group, this month gave Knowles its first-ever candidate endorsement. The AFN, an umbrella group for Eskimos, Indians, and Aleuts, has vowed an energetic get-out-the-vote drive.

Candidates from fringe parties on the right and left could still shift the outcome. Lt. Gov. Jack Coghill, running on the right-wing Alaskan Independence Party's ticket, has been urged by Republican leaders to drop out of the race. Coghill is pulling a little more than 11 percent support, according to Hellenthal's poll. Meanwhile, Jim Sykes, candidate for the ecologist Green Party, held about 4 percent support.

Campbell has made a point of blasting the support Knowles enjoys from top Clinton administration environmental officials, including Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Assistant Interior Secretary George Frampton, the department's chief of parks, fish, and wildlife.

``Most Alaskans do not feel that you can trust the secretary of Interior, you can trust Frampton, and you can trust the president,'' Campbell said at a timber-industry forum last week. The strategy may work in Alaska, where bumper stickers in the 1970s urged ``Sierra Go Home.''

But Knowles has dismissed the linkage as irrelevant. At the forum, he held up a Campbell bumper sticker and made fun of the slogan on it - ``Bill Clinton and Tony Knowles: Think About It.'' ``I don't know whether that's a hair situation that's being referred to or not,'' Knowles said.

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