If voters don't bite, TV will


THERE'S a lot of it going around these days. From Jerusalem to Canada, incumbent officials are getting the old heave-ho. In Italy half the government's in the lock-up. In Japan the prime minister was booted for corruption. In Moscow Boris Yeltsin had to dissolve his government to remain in power. And in Germany and France the heads of state are in deep dip.

And now the contagion has spread to America, where a black mayor and a Democratic governor were politically decapitated last week, and a candidate for governor who was 30 points up in the polls lost to an underdog Republican. New York, New Jersey and Virginia are only ripples in the rapids churning across the country. Even the hagiographic name of Martin Luther King III was rejected by voters in Atlanta.

So if all politics are local, what is the message that Marylanders can read into the lessons of current events both at home and abroad?

The shorthand rendition is that the voters have declared that incumbency can be hazardous to your health. The electorate is angry and unforgiving, providing further impetus to the primal scream for term limitations. But that's an oversimplification and a kind of pointillism that's only half the point.

In the long view, it will be the candidates who can best master television by re-creating themselves and redefining their opponents who will survive and succeed.

In New York and New Jersey, as well as in Virginia, television attack commercials and negative ads were the staples of the campaigns. In New York City, Republican victor Rudolph Giuliani used television against the black Democratic mayor, David Dinkins, to heighten the issue of crime.

In New Jersey, Republican Christine Todd Whitman unseated Gov. Jim Florio with a combination of TV and $500,000 in "walking around money" (an old tradition in Baltimore) used to suppress black voter turnout. And in Virginia, Republican George F. Allen used television to exploit Democrat Mary Sue Terry's ties to the state's feuding Democrats, Gov. Douglas Wilder and Sen. Charles Robb, while Democrats bombarded the candidate of the Christian right, Michael P. Farris, with mean-spirited TV commercials.

But here in Maryland, there's never really been a hard-hitting first-rate personal duel of television commercials where candidates are reconstituted in TV images. The modest exceptions have been the crude negative ads against Sen. Paul Sarbanes in 1982 and Republican Linda Chavez's go-for-the-gut personal attacks on Sen. Barbara Mikulski in 1986.

Foremost among the reasons television plays a lesser role in Maryland than in other states is money. Among Democrats in primary elections, one candidate usually dominates fundraising, leaving whatever other candidates there are woefully underfinanced and therefore electronically invisible. (And statewide candidates have to buy time in both Baltimore and Washington to reach voters in the two population centers.) Because Republicans are outnumbered by more than 2-1, the GOP rarely fields a formidable well-financed candidate who's troublesome in the general election. (Helen Bentley's entry into the governor's race yesterday is likely to change that.)

But for Democrats, attack television might be the difference in 1994. Of the three announced candidates, Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening appears to be in the best position to manipulate television imagery to his advantage.

Mr. Glendening's a blank slate everywhere in Maryland except in his own county. The advantage is that he's not viewed as part of the Annapolis crowd of incumbent elitists, so he can fill in his own slate however he wishes.

By contrast, Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg's one of the gang, a known quantity either liked or disliked for his role in Annapolis. By dint of his years in state government, Mr. Steinberg's slate is already very much filled in, and Mr. Steinberg's images are there for Mr. Glendening to manipulate to his advantage. As for State Sen. Mary Boergers of Montgomery County, the question is money and how much of it she can raise to create a television persona for herself.

Like them or not, smart candidates should do their homework and have attack ads in the can just in case they're needed. The strong undertow of this election season is this: Incumbents beware. If the voters don't get you, television will.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes here on Maryland politics.

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