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Kennedy Could Ride Ads to Rescue

In Bay State, Senate race offers window on effectiveness of negative TV messages in the modern political arena

THE gain - nearly 20 points in the polls - came suddenly, unexpectedly. One moment, Sen. Edward Kennedy, the Democrats' consummate liberal, was fighting for his political survival. Then almost overnight, he surged into a huge lead.

Senator Kennedy's stunning comeback in Massachusetts, despite the toughest competition of his career, could be one of the most dramatic and telling stories of the 1994 campaign, should it hold. It could also breathe new life into embattled Democrats in Congress.

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Only two months ago, Republican Mitt Romney, a self-made millionaire and son of former Michigan Gov. George Romney, appeared to have Kennedy's Senate seat within his grasp.

Articulate, clean-cut, well-financed, Mr. Romney was winning over the Bay State's traditionally liberal voters by convincing them that after 32 years in the Senate, Kennedy's time had past.

Liberals shaken

Shaken Democratic liberals across the United States, seeing the September poll numbers (Kennedy 48 percent, Romney 46 percent), have poured funds into the senator's campaign.

Kennedy rolled out negative TV ads that staggered his GOP opponent. He charged that Romney made his fortune off the backs of working men and women. He accused Romney, a venture capitalist, of making business decisions that deprived workers of health care and even of their jobs through brutal takeovers.

The polling numbers changed dramatically within three weeks.

Though they have closed in the final days of the campaign, Kennedy still leads by as much as 15 points - not an insurmountable gap, but a formidable one.

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Romney may buy half-hour TV time slots in the final days, in an effort to tell his story without the limits of sound bites and the counterpunch of negative ads.

Kennedy's political consulting firm, Doak, Shrum, which does his TV ads, is located close to Washington in suburban Virginia. It also represents Sen. Charles Robb, another Democrat, who is locked in one of the meanest Senate races of the year in Virginia.

Doak, Shrum is known for its ``zinger'' TV ads. To gather material on Romney, Kennedy hired a Washington-based detective agency to comb through all of Romney's affairs, a step Kennedy's campaign admitted.

Kennedy's swift comeback surprised the experts.

``I was frankly startled to hear about a possible 20-point lead by Kennedy,'' says Thomas H. Silver, editor of the nonpartisan Polling Report, a Washington-based research group.

He adds: ``We had all read that Kennedy was in big trouble. But after all, the big political money now goes into making and then testing these negative ads in focus groups. And the current perception is, the negative ads have a plot line and work, while ads on issues are seen as fluff.''

From the beginning, Romney has run on his business record. In his 14 years with Bain Capital, he helped create up to 10,000 jobs in the state - numbers local press investigations confirmed and that Kennedy has not really disputed.

Romney himself had already portrayed Kennedy in negative TV ads as an outdated representative of big government.

The ads suggested visually that perhaps Kennedy was even too old and too out of shape physically for the job. Romney portrayed himself as ably representing job-creating private enterprise.

Kennedy's all-out counterattack was designed to blunt Romney's image as a jobmaker. The senator brought a small group of disgruntled workers to Massachusetts from Indiana, where they were having a fierce labor dispute with a firm bought out with the help of Bain Capital. About 41 of 265 jobs had been shed. But this purchase was six months after Romney had taken leave for his campaign.

Anti-Romney group tours

The workers, put up in expensive Boston hotels, made the round of local talk shows. Doak, Shrum prepared a tough TV ad on them that was aired extensively. Kennedy's polling numbers jumped immediately after the ``Indiana factor'' hit TV.

Romney's ads tend to carry a subliminal message that he is Mr. Clean, ready to replace a senator who has a ``difficult'' personal past. An active Mormon who doesn't drink coffee or tea, let alone alcohol, Romney is known as a devoted family man who for years has given a day a week to social projects, largely in connection with his church. He is on the national board of the Boy Scouts of America. His work associates say he is, in a world of hard-nosed moneymakers, really a ``nice guy.''

A day of campaigning with Romney tended to confirm the image - a ready smile, square jaw, tall, youthful, forthright, patient, warm with youngsters who stopped him for a school-paper interview. Still, he is very tough-minded and clever.

The Kennedy campaign did not grant the Monitor an interview with the senator on his strategy to win the race.

Kennedy clout to fore

By early October, many political elements in Massachusetts also had rallied behind Kennedy, who had a real need to call in his many favors. He had, after all, brought billions of federal dollars into the state. ``Clout'' became a central Kennedy theme.

Political experts, however, credit the ads more than anything else for Kennedy's jump in the opinion polls. Andrew Kohut, director of the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press in Washington, says: ``People tell us they get their information on candidates from TV news and the newspapers, but negative ads in fact have a powerful effect if they strike a nerve with the public. Polls then just track the results of the ads.''

``People do respond to negative ads,'' says Paul McMasters, director of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. ``Newspapers and TV news have the responsibility to track these ads and separate fact from fiction, but TV news is not willing to examine the ads, and the papers do not reach the millions that the ads do.''

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