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Clinton campaign takes gamble in early TV ads


WASHINGTON -- The White House decision to begin running television commercials for President Clinton a year before the general election campaign has set off some predictable hand-wringing among politicians shaken up by something so new and different.

The most common criticism from political consultants is that running the commercials at this point means that everything Clinton does from now on will be viewed as part of his campaign for a second term.

It also can be argued that the unorthodox approach suggests the president is very much on the defensive -- to the point that he cannot even use the White House bully pulpit to project the kind of image he prefers.

In fact, both of those things are true. Commercials or not, the president is already running for re-election. And, commercials or not, Clinton is indeed on the defensive.

Some experts believe that using commercials this way is somehow un-presidential, a perception of Clinton already abroad in the land. Most presidents make a point of disdaining joining "the political season," as George Bush used to call it, until after the party convention and their renomination.

There is, however, another and more serious hazard in running the commercials now -- the possibility that they will be dismissed because they don't jibe with the real world as seen by the voters.

One of the axioms of political advertising is that it is most effective when the content is credible. And that means that what voters see on commercials shouldn't be jarringly in conflict with what they see on the television news broadcasts a few minutes later.

When that doesn't happen, the commercials can backfire. In the fall of 1980, for example, President Jimmy Carter's campaign ran a series of commercials designed to show him as a strong figure. But they often were broadcast juxtaposed against news programs showing him being jerked around by the Iranians who held the 52 American hostages.

By contrast, President Reagan's television campaign in the 1984 election was essentially "seamless" -- meaning that there were times when it was hard to distinguish the "morning in America" commercials from the carefully staged Reagan campaign appearances that turnedup on the network news every night.

In this case, the White House has seized on what appears to be an ideal issue for Clinton right now -- the ban on assault weapons that he has staked out as one of the issues that divide him from Republicans in general and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole in particular.

The 30-second spots include two in which police officers describe crimes committed with assault weapons and ally themselves with the president's efforts to ban them and to put more police on the streets. The commercials also make a point of mentioning Clinton's support for the death penalty, an issue often used to sort out those "soft on crime" in political campaigns.

On the facts, the commercials meet the credibility test. Clinton did indeed take the lead in promulgating a tough crime bill that included the ban on assault weapons. And he has been outspoken in his denunciation of the National Rifle Association and conservatives in Congress who would reverse that ban.

The White House believes, nonetheless, that the president is not getting enough attention called to this record in the regular news media. So the Clinton campaign is willing to spend $2.6 million to broadcast the message in 18 or 20 markets in states with pivotal electoral votes.

But the question is whether viewers in those markets will see those commercials as consistent with the Bill Clinton they are seeing on the television news broadcasts.

If there has been a single political problem for the president in his first term, it has been his inability to project the image of a strong leader. Instead, he has been seen as a president too willing to compromise and too willing to make the political choice.

While the commercials may give voters a clearer picture of Clinton on the crime issue. But for them to be believable, the president needs to be a strong leader on other issues.

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