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Virginia Senate Candidates Launch Harsh Commercials

By Peter Baker and Kent Jenkins Jr.
The Washington Post

Virginia's Senate race took its harshest turn yet Thursday as the front-runners launched television commercials including accusations of lying to schoolchildren, partying with drug dealers and trysting with a beauty queen.

With polls showing Democratic Sen. Charles S. Robb and Republican challenger Oliver L. North deadlocked 25 days before the Nov. 8 election, both candidates have embarked on a strategy of demonizing the other.

Using suggestive, tabloid-style music and language, North's new ad reminds voters of Robb's personal problems with drug parties and marital infidelity. It flashes a Playboy cover of a woman who claimed to have had an affair with him and concludes that "Chuck Robb lived a lie."

Hours after that spot hit the air, Robb counterpunched with his own ad declaring that North is lying and asking whether the GOP nominee even "knows what the truth is."

The sudden media skirmish signaled a new phase in the nation's most celebrated political contest this year, which analysts believe will be overwhelmingly negative. For now, marital infidelity, falsification of documents, tolerance of drugs and misuse of funds for personal gain are the issues of choice.

"The question is whether it's the self-destructive stage or not," said Ronald G. Shaiko, a government professor at American University. "These guys are going to be stumbling across the line here, shooting each other, perhaps even mortally wounding each other."

Although the tenor of the campaign recently had been growing meaner with each passing day, the ugliness remained largely confined to stump appearances, with both candidates using surrogates such as Vice President Gore and Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole to deliver the verbal blows.

The commercials show that both men have overcome any reluctance to highlight the most objectionable aspects of each other's past. And by putting that on television, the campaigns have tapped the medium that will reach, relentlessly, into millions of voters' homes through Election Day.

The unintended beneficiary could be independent J. Marshall Coleman, who hopes to attract voters turned off by the major-party nominees. A Washington Post survey published Sunday showed that most voters already were making a choice based on character questions rather than issues.

"There's a chance that Coleman will pick up support now that the exchange has occurred," said Greg Stevens, a Republican media consultant who worked against North's nomination but has stayed out of the race since. "That may be the answer to why it didn't start sooner, because they didn't want to do anything to help him."

However, Coleman trails so far behind in the polls and fund-raising that most analysts say it may be too late for him to have a credible shot at victory. The Post poll showed North with 42 percent, Robb with 41 percent and Coleman with 9 percent.

As the candidates craft their media strategies for the final weeks, Robb may have the tougher time taking votes away from North, according to independent political professionals.

By waiting so long to attack, they said, Robb allowed North to redefine his image from dangerous loose cannon to affable war hero and devoted family man. North spent $800,000 on unanswered television ads between his June nomination and Labor Day, primarily a series of warm-and-fuzzy commercials that featured his wife, a war buddy and, finally, North himself.

That last ad was perhaps the most effective. It showed North dressed in a blue flannel shirt straight out of L.L. Bean, talking directly into the camera in a folksy style before concluding, "I'd appreciate your vote."

"It's one of the best things I've ever seen," said Harry Wilson, a political science professor at Roanoke College. "He's so good. It's scary how good he is. He's better than Reagan."

Mike Murphy, North's media consultant, said the strategy was to reintroduce North to voters in terms they never had associated with him. "He has a family, he has a life, he's somebody, he's like us," Murphy said. "It adds another dimension. ... We could undo some of the media demonization, show that he's actually a helluva guy."

A poll released this week demonstrated how much that tactic has helped North. Since July, his favorable rating increased from 37 percent to 43 percent, while Robb's fell from 50 percent to 42 percent. The poll also showed that despite Robb's charges, fewer people trust the incumbent to tell the truth than his challenger (34 percent compared to 37 percent).