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Mark Bennett Opinion

April 1, 2012

MARK BENNETT: GOP campaign fireworks could fizzle for Hoosiers once again

Of all the United States, Indiana deserves to experience Republican-on-Republican presidential attack-ad mania.

Yet, the late date of the Hoosier primary may render Indiana uniquely disqualified to help select the party’s 2012 presidential nominee. Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary could be the last chance for frontrunner Mitt Romney’s closest rival, Rick Santorum. A victory by Santorum could preserve the former Pennsylvania senator’s campaign, at least until a cluster of Northeast primaries on April 24. If he survives that round, Indiana could see fireworks between Santorum and Romney in the weeks leading up to voting May 8.

Unless those dominoes fall correctly, though, Indiana’s presidential primary will return to its snoozer, rubber-stamping tradition.

That would be a sad, missed opportunity. Talk about fertile territory for strange political theater — Indiana, circa 2012, could top Iowa, New Hampshire and even South Carolina. Those states boast about voters being willing to research the candidates, frank discussions, and no-mercy criticisms. So what? Indiana just completed a state legislative session featuring criticism of the Girl Scouts of America, and a bill that would have imposed fines for improvisational singing of the national anthem. Clearly, no topic would be off the table if Romney, Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul brought their A games to Hoosierland.

Last week’s developments endangered that possibility. Santorum began talking about accepting the vice presidential nod. Gingrich downsized his campaign. Paul still hangs in there with 50 delegates, compared to Romney’s 568, Santorum’s 273 and Gingrich’s 135. Romney, the wealthy former Massachusetts governor, needs 1,144 delegates to clinch the nomination. In Tuesday’s primaries in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia, 98 delegates are at stake. Another 231 are available in the April 24 primaries.

Victories for Santorum, especially a win in Wisconsin, could slow Romney’s march and spice up the primary here.

“If that is the case, we can expect quite a bit of [political] advertising in Indiana” Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics, told the Tribune-Star last month.

And that means attack ads.

“If this is still a competitive race on May 8, you’re going to get negative ads in Indiana,” Ken Goldstein, president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, said by telephone Thursday.

Such a scenario would be rare. Historically, Indiana has seldom seen intense presidential campaigning because both parties’ nominations are usually sewn up by the time this state conducts its primary in May. The 2008 Democratic presidential race altered that routine, as former U.S. senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were still locked in a tight duel. The Obama-Clinton competition featured some attack ads, starting with Clinton’s “Trouble” commercial, jabbing her opponent for rejecting a freeze on home foreclosures and a gas-tax holiday.

Hoosiers aren’t strangers to ads attacking a rival from the same party. Candidates for governor, Congress, state legislature, and city and county offices beat up each other, too. But Indiana — a traditionally Red State — has seldom seen Republican presidential candidates dissing each other, especially as they’ve done in other states so far.

Why is this happening? Because it works.

Americans believe attack ads, where a candidate’s comment (usually out of context) gets exaggerated into worst-case scenarios. Though many people insist the negativity sours their political interests, the ads keep coming. “No evidence that people are turned off by it,” Goldstein said, bluntly.

Actually, we expect negative campaign ads. They’re part of our culture now. The Onion, a satire newspaper, lampooned that reality with a pair of recent stories: “Depressed Candidate Runs Attack Ad About Self” and “Precocious Youngster Sells Cookies to Buy Attack Ad.”

The tone of real 2012 Republican attack ads is strange, but less comical. The super political action committees (super PACs) supporting the candidates — now unrestrained in the use of millions of corporate dollars, thanks to a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision — do most of the dirty work. Restore Our Future, the super PAC supporting Romney, leads the pack, flooding the airwaves with $35 million worth of ads targeting Santorum and Gingrich, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, effectively squashing the rivals’ occasional bursts of success.

Just for good measure, Restore Our Future has also spent $1.1 million on positive ads touting Romney’s virtues.

In the ad that rankled Santorum most, he’s painted as a Washington insider who voted five times to increase federal spending and debt, for the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere, a teapot museum, and even an indoor rain forest.” The gut-punch comes seconds later, when the ad states that Santorum “even voted to let convicted felons vote.” The ad shows a man in an orange prison jumpsuit wearing an “I Voted” button, implying they would cast ballots while behind bars.

Never mind that Santorum, in reality, had favored allowing released convicts after completing their sentences, probations and paroles, to vote.

Santorum’s super PAC — the Red, White, and Blue Fund — fired back, literally, with its own ad.

In that “Rombo” commercial, a Romney look-alike stalks a life-sized Santorum cutout in an empty warehouse, toting a machine gun that fires mud, paintball-style. Mud, as in political mud-slinging. Get it? In this attack ad attacking attack ads, the narrator declares, “Mitt Romney’s attacks are going to backfire.” It ends with Romney actor cringing at the mud stain on his very corporate-looking whiteshirt.

That’s what Hoosiers might be missing. But not for long. The general election this fall promises to be far dirtier.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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