Republican Counterattack

In too many races the outcome will turn on ads not issues.

| Thu Oct. 26, 2006 2:00 AM EDT

While most of the political pros have already awarded control of the House to the Democrats, with several thinking the Senate also will go that way, too, they are busily reassessing the race as the final countdown begins.

In general, the pros believe the Republican “firewall” — that is, Virginia, Tennessee, and Missouri — is holding. In Tennessee, where Bill Frist’s Senate seat is up for grabs, Bob Corker, the Republican candidate, is thought to have turned his lackluster campaign around. He is now in position to beat Rep. Harold Ford Jr., the darling of the Democratic Party, who, the media is fond of pointing out, would be the first black Senator to represent a southern state since Reconstruction.

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As ludicrous as it may seem, the Republicans are gaining ground by sliming Ford as a scandalous playboy, publicizing the fact that he attended a Playboy Super Bowl party in 2005. (Ford’s reasoned response: “I like football, and I like girls.”) In a new attack ad, funded by the Republican National Committee, a fetching white actress talks about partying, saying at the end, “Harold, call me.’’ She then winks. The ad was pulled yesterday. One would think using the old black-man-with-white-woman ploy had outlived its usefulness, but apparently not. Remember how J. Edgar Hoover put out stories about Martin Luther King Jr.’s behavior with Scandinavian beauties? And you couldn’t go anywhere near Jesse Jackson in his presidential campaign in 1988 without hearing gossip about his latest supposed white girlfriend.

In Virginia, though George Allen’s “macaca” moment opened the door for a slew of allegations about his racist behavior toward blacks in the past, this probably hasn’t hurt him much with many of Virginia’s white voters — that is, those outside the northern Virginia suburbs, near Washington. As it stands, Allen is still is up 4 or 5 points over his democratic opponent Jim Webb, Ronald Reagan’s former Secretary of the Navy who went on to become a journalist and author.

In Missouri, where stem cell research is a high stakes issue, Republican Jim Talent is holding a slim lead over Claire McCaskill. (She’s for stem cell research, he’s against it.) There, the Democrats recently ran an ad featuring Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, that set off a national controversy earlier this week (see below). Stem cell opponents unveiled their own celebrity-laden ad during World Series last night, which features, among other sports stars, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jeff Suppan.

Currently, the pollsters think both Missouri and Tennessee will stay Republican, with Virginia quite probably doing the same. Bob Novak, who liberals love to hate but who is among the more adroit political journalists in Washington, thinks the Republicans will hold on to the Senate, but lose the House by a slim margin of four or five votes.

When it comes to issues, the one with the most traction is neither the war or Bush’s record — the two that have been most widely publicized in the press — but stem cell research. Rush Limbaugh’s crude remarks about Michael J. Fox drew a broad hostile reaction. (On his radio program Limbaugh told his 10 million listeners that Fox “was either off his medication or acting. He is an actor after all.” He later apologized.)

Ads featuring people with life threatening diseases that might be cured by research using stem cells have turned this issue into a much wider discussion of medical practices, embracing all sorts of situations relating to life and death, health and privacy.

Abortion doesn’t seem to be much of an issue this year, unlike previous election cycles. And the Foley scandal isn’t having a tremendous impact in most races. As for Iraq, politicians across the board don’t like the war but don’t want to go on the record saying what to do, save for some brave souls who express vague notions about an exit strategy. People don’t like Bush, but seem scared of taking him on directly. In too many places, the outcome of the election will hinge on perceptions not issues, on who can devise the most effective slimeball ads.