The Message

Are You Positive?

Members of the freakin' media are supposed to accurately convey what's going on in the world, but, as usual, they've got it all wrong. Although commentators and analysts insist that TV commercials associated with the 2004 election in Colorado are among the meanest, ugliest and most misleading in recent memory, folks from campaigns on both sides of the political divide say that's absolutely incorrect. Maybe their opponents' spots are negative, but not theirs. Perish the thought.

Yep, we're deep in the heart of Spin Season, when reality is a flexible concept and absurd statements repeatedly delivered with a straight face are treated like a reasonable facsimile of the truth. In such an environment, it makes perfect sense that associates of a given candidate decry blistering assaults made upon their guy, yet identify responses with a similar tone coming from them as informational opportunities that merely point out discrepancies in their rival's public stands.

Consider, for instance, an onslaught against Representative Bob Beauprez, a Republican running for re-election in the 7th Congressional District. The commercial begins with a stark black-and-white image of combat troops, followed by an ominous voice making charges against Beauprez that are reinforced by graphics such as "Bob Beauprez voted to slash GI health-care benefits and veterans' disability." Finally, an unflattering publicity shot of Beauprez appears just in time for the word "Failed" to be superimposed over his visage. "Bob Beauprez has failed," the glum narrator intones. "It's time to vote no to Bob Beauprez."

The ad wasn't sponsored by the national Democratic party, which, like its Republican counterpart, has bankrolled plenty of offerings here and around the country that focus on the alleged flaws of opposition candidates rather than the attributes of individuals in its own camp. Instead, the organization backing Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas, the Democrat trying to unseat Beauprez, funded the commercial. Thomas can be heard at its conclusion delivering the election year's ironic punchline: "I approve this message."

So is Thomas engaging in negative campaigning? Hardly, says Dayna Hanson, his communications director. "Dave Thomas has vowed to run a very positive campaign," she says. "So we have chosen only to highlight Bob Beauprez's record in Congress and let voters decide if that reflects their values and concerns."

Hanson doubts that anything is beneath Beauprez's crusaders. When it's noted that no televised ads have surfaced questioning Thomas's actions in the aftermath of Columbine despite cover-up accusations recently leveled against him by some critics, she says the topic turned up in an anti-Dave mailing. As for their commercials, she declares most of them to be "dirty" and "not rooted in the truth." To her, this makes what she sees as Thomas's high-minded refusal to get into the mud with Beauprez all the more remarkable, albeit frustrating at times. "It's incredibly difficult" not to strike back in kind, she maintains. "I think anybody would be lying if they said otherwise."

At Beauprez HQ, meanwhile, campaign spokesman Jordan Stoick has a very different view: Beauprez's philosophy when it comes to commercials "has been to talk to the voters about his common-sense, mainstream principles and real-world experience." Beauprez would have stayed exclusively with that approach, Stoick continues, but "Dave Thomas for months ran a negative campaign against Bob Beauprez." Hence a shift in strategy, with the Beauprez crew deciding to shine a light on Thomas. "Dave Thomas's record is obviously fair game," Stoick allows.

An example is a Beauprez-approved commercial in which Thomas is slapped for having plea-bargained "three out of four criminal felonies" -- a far from atypical percentage in a major-metro area. Even so, Stoick doesn't view the spot as negative. "All we're doing is speaking about his record," he says, "and speaking about someone's record should be part of the process."

Cody Wertz, campaign spokesman for Ken Salazar, the Democratic aspirant to the U.S. Senate, hits many of the same notes. He stresses that Salazar "came out early with a positive campaign pledge that was verbally agreed to. Ken said, ŒLet's keep this about the issues and not get into the negatives, the slurs and the slime.'" Nevertheless, his campaign was behind a commercial that said Pete Coors, the Republican who is Salazar's foe in the Senate contest, wouldn't put Osama bin Laden to death. As it turns out, Coors is against capital punishment, meaning he wouldn't fry anyone. Dragging in bin Laden, then, is a colossal distortion on par with declaring that because Salazar is pro-choice, he might allow a future president of the United States to be aborted.

Wertz, though, doesn't consider the bin Laden spot either unfair or underhanded: "In that ad, we were legitimately pointing out the true differences between Pete Coors and Ken Salazar." Besides, Wertz feels that Coors's minions took this path first. According to him, "The Coors campaign and their friends went negative early on, attacking Ken on his environmental record and homeland security. But we reserved the right, in an open letter we sent to Mr. Coors, to defend ourselves when we're attacked, and we've done that."

For her part, Coors campaign spokeswoman Cinamon Watson uses verbiage much like Wertz's to paint her boss as the victim, not the aggressor. "It's in everybody's interest to make sure the race is very clean and focuses on the issues," she says. "That's why it's unfortunate that Ken Salazar has launched so many nasty attack ads -- and when you're attacked in that nature, you have to defend yourself."

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