Ads fly thick and fast with the candidates lost in the clamor


MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The great air war is well under way.

Voters here face a bewildering crush of advertisements, many negative, as the presidential primary campaign heads into its final weekend.

Hundreds of ads run morning, noon and night on TV and radio -- more than $4 million worth of messages.

There's Bob Kerrey running in a sweat suit, Tom Harkin rolling up his sleeves, Paul Tsongas swimming, Bill Clinton talking, President Bush strolling across his office.

"I'm confused. There are so many campaigning at this point," lamented Loretta Yurck, a worker in a Claremont wool-making plant visited yesterday by Mr. Kerrey, a Democratic senator from Nebraska.

Mr. Kerrey's face is one of the most visible on TV -- not that it always helps.

"He's a Democrat, isn't he?" Ms. Yurck asked after shaking his hand.

The problem for Mr. Kerrey and other candidates is that voters are overwhelmed. With seven major candidates and several minor ones airing ads, with political stories filling the newspapers, New Hampshire is suffering from message gridlock.

Mr. Kerrey's frantic advertising effort to climb above about 10 percent in the polls amounts to shouting in a windstorm.

If anyone on the Democratic side is being heard by voters, it's Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin. But his increasingly negative message, in which he's trying to build himself up by knocking down those above him in the polls, grates on some ears.

"I get disgusted at people cutting other people," said Mickie Richardson, human resources director of the Homestead Industries wool plant.

One of Mr. Harkin's TV ads features photographs of three of his rivals -- only former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. is missing -- and states: "These three Democrats are all saying the same thing: more tax cuts for the rich and big business."

In the last two days, Mr. Harkin has augmented this ad with news conference attacks on Mr. Tsongas, the front-runner in the polls. He attacks the former Massachusetts senator for his support of nuclear power.

"I think the height of cynicism is for someone to claim he's an environmentalist and turn around and advocate building nuclear power plants," Mr. Harkin said yesterday.

Mr. Tsongas, who displaced Mr. Clinton, the governor of Arkansas, as the leader in the polls, is getting a full dose of the downside to such status.

Reporters are taking a closer look at his record since 1984 as a lawyer, lobbyist and corporate board member.

A story yesterday in the Boston Herald, which circulates widely in populous southern New Hampshire, asserts that he represented one of the state's top polluters as a lobbyist in 1990.

And Mr. Kerrey, in an ad depicting himself as the most electable Democrat, dismisses Mr. Tsongas as a regional candidate.

Mr. Tsongas scoffed at the latter criticism, noting that it came from a candidate "from Nebraska I beat in Iowa," a reference to the just-concluded Iowa Democratic caucuses in which Mr. Tsongas finished a distant second to Mr. Harkin.

Mr. Harkin's attacks aren't going unanswered.

"Tom's ad is extremely misleading, intentionally so," Mr. Kerrey said. "He's selling himself as an old-style Democrat. It's now apparent he's an old-style politician."

On the Republican side, the combative Patrick J. Buchanan has been socking and mocking Mr. Bush for nine weeks. Although Mr. Buchanan has switched lately in his ads from criticism to stating his platform, at news conferences he denigrates Mr. Bush's State of the Union address as a "consumer fraud."

Mr. Bush hasn't responded in kind, but his campaign has negative ads ready to run just in case. And Mr. Bush has made extensive use of surrogates to pummel Mr. Buchanan.

In an oft-run TV ad, Mr. Bush asks "for your vote to lead America back to prosperity" and to "defeat the liberal Democrats in the fall."

With politics so dominating the public discourse, voters may be ready for relief.

"If you're sick and tired of politics, may we suggest a movie this weekend?" a WBZ-radio announcer said yesterday -- just after saying that the station would shortly air interviews with two candidates.

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