Press release wars heating up campaigns

Flip-flopping Kerry protester
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was tagged as a "flip-flopper" in the 2004 campaign, and protesters dressed like flip-flops appeared at many of his events, including this one in St. Paul in August 2004.
Photo by HECTOR MATA/AFP/Getty Images

(AP) - Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota's Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, is "taking her marching orders from national liberals" as she mounts with "breathtaking hypocrisy" a "relentlessly negative campaign" of "endless photo-ops and false attacks" meant to cover her "growing credibility problem."

Her likely opponent, Republican Mark Kennedy, is "just another rubber stamp" and a "loyal servant" to President Bush, a "weak-kneed politician who is in the back pocket of Big Oil," who "spouts hot air" and is "about as independent as a used car dealer is honest."

None of the above invective comes from actual spoken quotes. Instead, it's the increasingly common attack fare in news releases from political operatives desperate to spin news coverage to their advantage.

"Outrageousness is part of the fun of our political process," said Wayne Fields, a political rhetoric expert who directs the American Culture Studies program at Washington University in St. Louis.

Outrageousness is part of the fun of our political process.

But, Fields said, as outrageousness becomes the default tone of politics, it threatens to drain the substance out of political debate.

"It lets you say certain things without an argument or without proof, because it's wrapped up in this snappy, clever approach. As long as people see that as the case, it's just going to get more outrageous."

Many of the releases imply the opposing candidate is barely fit for membership in the human race, much less an important job like senator or governor.

In a Maryland Democratic Party missive, Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich is a "poor leader" with "no accomplishments" who is "owned" by the "big special interests."

In Missouri, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Claire McCaskill is "completely clueless."

To be more pithy, political operatives sprinkle their press releases with alliterative nicknames for an opponent's allegedly deficient character trait.

Thus Democrats have dubbed Kennedy "Makeover Mark" to paint the conservative, Bush-allied congressman as a shape-shifter now presenting himself as more centrist and independent for a statewide electorate.

In Tennessee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee launched a Web site mocking U.S. Senate candidate Harold Ford as "Fancy Ford" - accusing him of living "the good life" on "his campaign contributors' dime."

The people issuing the news releases defend them, saying it's their job to spread information in the most effective way possible to a largely tuned-out public.

"Our opponents need to be held accountable for the stuff they've done, and it's the job of the opposition to get that out there," said Jess McIntosh, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Democratic Party. "Yes, some of the one-liners can get silly, but there's such a wealth of information, so distilling it quickly so you know exactly what we're saying is a good thing."

McIntosh's GOP counterpart agrees.

"People have busy lives," said Republican Party spokesman Mark Drake. "You do need to be aggressive in trying to define what your guy stands for and why he or she is the better choice. In a high-speed age, you have to keep it clipped and short."

And when a political insult catches on, it can be devastating.

"Look at 'flip-flopper,"' said Tom Horner, a longtime Minnesota PR pro who admits to crafting his share of "purple prose" for Republican candidates. "That phrase defined John Kerry, and may have had as much as anything to do with why George Bush was re-elected."

Press releases give political warriors a forum for testing such nasty nicknames and character-defining putdowns, Horner said.

But another veteran of the sound-bite wars, Minneapolis-based adman Bill Hillsman, sees instead a growing shrillness and lack of creativity in the sniping.

"It's not about drawing more people into the system, it's about preaching to the choir and show how tough you are to your own people," said Hillsman, who helped elect Paul Wellstone and Jesse Ventura, and who now advises independent Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman. "It makes the candidates, the big-money people feel good - 'Oh, we gave as good as we got on that one.'"

Hillsman said it's a good thing most voters never see such press releases. In his opinion, people who are "normal," who are "reasonable," would look at such "inflammatory rhetoric" and find that "it's all pretty silly."

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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