Two of Colorado’s top political analysts agree that without quick and proper responses, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mark Udall risks getting stereotyped the way Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry got tarred by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Udall’s camp has been remarkably quiet as the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the conservative advocacy group Common Sense Issues have produced misleading videos and advertisements that try to brand Colorado’s 2nd District congressman a “Boulder liberal,” who is soft on terror and a friend of Fidel Castro’s.“The key words here are ‘defining early,'” said political scientist Bob Loevy of Colorado College. “If you allow the other side to define you and define you early, that will be the way people think of you. You have to respond and respond hard.”
As crazy and distorted as the current attack ads are, without rebuttal and pushback to discredit the source, almost any kind of specious characterization can take hold, said Colorado State University political scientist John Straayer.
“Basically,” Straayer explained, “you have to Swift-Boat them back.”
Otherwise, the truth gets lost as it did in the presidential election, where people actually believed the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s big lie – that Kerry had not done the things that won him combat medals in Vietnam.
The attacks on Udall are not as vicious. But they contain outrageous half-truths and spin designed to make the Congressman look like a wimp and a political opportunist.
The sources of those claims are clearly Republican. But counting on people to make the distinction is risky, Loevy and Straayer agreed.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Udall campaign finally responded to the Common Sense Issues ads by suggesting that Common Sense Issues might be illegally tied to the campaign of Udall opponent Bob Schaffer. Loevy called that approach “inside baseball.”
“You have to deal with the electorate,” Loevy said.
“This is an era where the advice has changed in the modern era,” he continued. “It used to be that you didn’t respond because it just kept the story in the news. Bill and Hillary Clinton articulated a different strategy – an instant response that refutes the claim.”
Questioning credibility or making claims of crimes may help impeach the messenger, said Straayer. But alone, claims of illegal connections will be insufficient to break the frame into which Republicans hope to fit Udall, especially if they continue with attack ads for the 11 months until the election.
“You’ve got to go at both the substance and the source,” Straayer said. “You have to do that whether the attacks are from the right or the left.”
It is necessary to have “an item-by-item rebuttal to the factual misrepresentations,” the professor said, while you try to characterize the folks making the charges “as at best silly and at worst mean-spirited and willing to do almost anything with the truth.”
For instance, Straayer said, the ugly push polls Common Sense Issues has conducted on behalf of – but without permission from – Mike Huckabee in the Iowa Republican caucuses could be used to show the group even plays dirty against members of its preferred party.
That said, Straayer is amazed that the attacks ads on Udall started almost a year from Election Day.
“I don’t remember any other campaign starting this early,” Straayer said.
On the other hand, the professor opined, Udall has “a pretty good image” that will take some time to undermine, if it can be undermined at all.
Loevy thinks Udall needs to keep hammering home a very simple message that stresses his experience in Congress and on the Armed Services Committee, as well as his connection to all of Colorado, not Boulder.
Added Straayer: “He’s clean, attractive and statesmanlike. What you want to do (if you’re trying to attack him) is transform him into a ‘Boulder liberal.'”
Udall’s personal response needs to maintain a modicum of statesmanship if he wants to secure his image, Straayer continued. “He might say something like, `We all know this isn’t true. Let’s elevate this discussion and get to the issues.'”
In the end, though, Udall and his supporters have to say something to head off the Swift Boats.
“He has to get his advisors together and respond to this,” Loevy said. “It comes down to this: Are these people with ads going to define you, or are you going to define yourself?”