WASHINGTON -- President Bush's campaign, we are told, has an ace up its sleeve -- $15 million or $20 million or $25 million to spend on late television advertising, enough to "move the numbers." Don't bet the rent money on it.
It is true that both the Bush campaign and that of Democratic nominee Bill Clinton have significant reserves to spend on commercials in the final two weeks of the campaign. But for a variety of reasons -- some peculiar to this campaign -- the notion that the direction of the campaign can be turned around by advertising probably doesn't hold water.
For one thing, it is axiomatic in politics that advertising is most effective when there is a lack of other information about the campaign and the candidates. That means that in the late stages of any presidential campaign, the attention being paid by what the politicians call "the free media" -- meaning newspapers and television and radio news outlets -- is so complete it can overwhelm advertising.
This doesn't suggest commercials cannot make a difference in some circumstances. In 1988, for example, Democrat Michael S. Dukakis suffered varying degrees of damage from Republican attack ads featuring the revolving prison door, Dukakis's own ride in the turret of a tank and the ostensible pollution of Boston Harbor. But they were effective, first, because there was no serious debate under way on any single central issue of the campaign and, second, because they played on perceptions of Dukakis that he allowed to develop without fighting back.
In this case, there is a clearly dominant issue, the condition of the economy and Bush's record in dealing with it. And the president is the one on the defensive with negatives higher than his positives, an awkward position from which to change the subject to whether Clinton's waffling on his draft history proves he lacks the integrity to be president. That issue has been out there for weeks now, and the polls suggest those who are persuaded by it already have made up their minds against him -- and, more to the point, are already factored into the surveys that show Clinton leading by 10 to 15 percent overall.
There is, however, no mystery in the Republicans' decision to press ahead with their advertising offensive. The trust issue is the only one they seem to have left to use, and it is possible that concentration of such advertising might make a difference in a few states still within the president's range and absolutely
essential to him, including Florida, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey and Kentucky. But it is hard to believe the commercials can accomplish what Bush himself has failed to accomplish in two debates with audiences in the tens of millions of voters.
In any case, Clinton is not naked to his enemies. He is also running commercials now that reinforce his case that the decision is about the economy and Bush's record over his four years in office, as well as a biographical spot intended to provide some insulation against the charges he is not to be trusted. Both campaigns are also running commercials tailored to particular states and focusing on local and regional issues.
The context is difficult for the ad men, nonetheless. This has been a campaign in which the voters signaled their seriousness from the outset with the support they gave to Paul Tsongas in the contest for the Democratic nomination and to Ross Perot up to the time he stepped aside in July. The lesson in capital letters has been that the voters of 1992 are in no humor for a reprise of the triviality of 1988.
In stressing what the president yesterday called a "pattern of deception" on the part of Clinton, the Bush campaign is playing the most orthodox politics. The conventional wisdom in the political community is that the closer the election becomes, the more uneasy voters become about electing a new man to the White House. That concern, more than any other, was responsible for the late gains President Gerald R. Ford made against challenger Jimmy Carter in the 1976 campaign.
But this is not 1976. There are serious issues that have been on the table all year on which the candidates' records and views have been explored thoroughly. The tentative verdict in the opinion polls is that they have decided Bush's record on these issues doesn't justify a second term. Changing that decision with 30-second spots in the last two weeks is a monumental undertaking.