Thursday, November 02, 2006

Democratic Leader Put to Work as G.O.P. Campaign Star

The New York Times
Democratic Leader Put to Work as G.O.P. Campaign Star

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 1 — Representative Melissa Bean of Illinois, a Democrat, has a Republican opponent in next week’s election, but he does not appear in the advertisement that skewers her. Instead, that role is being played by a fellow Democrat, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the minority leader.

Judging by some of the political name-calling in the final days before the elections, Ms. Pelosi seems to be in the thick of campaigns for Congress from Illinois to Georgia and several places in between. She is the unwitting star of at least a half-dozen television spots — and countless radio spots, direct-mail campaigns and candidate debates —warning voters that if they choose their local Democrat for Congress, they are also casting a vote for Ms. Pelosi.

The problem with the tactic, Democrats and some Republican strategists say, is that many voters have no idea who Ms. Pelosi is. That can make the advertisements sound more desperate than menacing, or at the least, confounding.

“It’s awful hard to make a boogeyman out of someone no one knows,” said Ed Rollins, a Republican political consultant. “The reality is, no one is going to vote for a Republican congressman because they are afraid of Nancy Pelosi.”

A spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee suggested that Ms. Pelosi fell into the same category of unknowns as Representative J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, the Republican speaker.

“We don’t run Denny Hastert ads because he is speaker of the House and no one knows who he is,” said Sarah Feinberg, the spokeswoman. “People know who the president is, and that is why we have used him in more than 90 ads in 35 districts.”

In a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted last week, 55 percent of those polled said they had not heard enough about Ms. Pelosi to form an opinion about her, compared with 10 percent who viewed her favorably and 17 percent who viewed her unfavorably. Other polls released in the last month have yielded similar results.

Still, many Republicans are betting that the prospect of Ms. Pelosi replacing Mr. Hastert as speaker should the Democrats take control of Congress will scare undecided voters into voting Republican.

“Nancy Pelosi is like kryptonite in Republican districts,” said Ed Patru, a spokesman for the Republican National Campaign Committee, which is paying for some of the advertisements. “We’d be more than happy to fly Nancy Pelosi in to those districts.”

Here she is in one of the group’s advertisements against Ms. Bean: “Melissa Bean follows liberal Nancy Pelosi 83 percent of the time,” growls the announcer, over images of the Golden Gate Bridge and some not-particularly-flattering snapshots of Ms. Pelosi, who represents San Francisco. “Melissa Bean. Just a Nancy Pelosi wannabe.”

Mr. Patru said that the committee is encouraging candidates in “overwhelming red states” to invoke the specter of a Speaker Pelosi in their campaigns. The tactic mirrors one employed by Democrats in 1996, when the speaker, Newt Gingrich, became an antagonist in advertisements attacking Republican candidates.

“She’ll reward illegal aliens with welfare, food stamps and free education,” warns the announcer in an advertisement for Mac Collins, a Republican who is seeking to unseat Representative Jim Marshall in Georgia.

In one of the most fiercely contested races in Indiana, a Republican incumbent, Representative John Hostettler, has broadcast a commercial linking his Democratic challenger, Brad Ellsworth, to Ms. Pelosi. A radio spot went even further: “Pelosi will then put in motion her radical plan to advance the homosexual agenda, led by Barney Frank,” the narrator says.

Representative Charles H. Taylor, the Republican incumbent in North Carolina’s 11th District, goes for an even broader approach, linking his Democratic opponent, Heath Shuler, to Ms. Pelosi; Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee; and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The television advertisements tend to share three features: images of Ms. Pelosi looking angry, startled or slightly bug-eyed; the words “liberal” and “San Francisco”; and dire tones reminiscent of the films shown to seventh-graders, warning of the dangers of marijuana.

The Republican National Campaign Committee even has a quiz on the home page of its Web site: “Which Nancy Pelosi quote do you find most disturbing?”

Ms. Pelosi is also used as a bat with which to beat on Democrats in debates and interviews. In Indiana, for example, Chris Chocola, a Republican incumbent, repeated Ms. Pelosi’s name throughout a debate with his Democratic challenger, Joe Donnelly. In Utah’s Second Congressional District, the Republican challenger, LaVar Christensen, has brought up her name incessantly on the campaign trail.

Among the many issues that surface in the advertisements — abortion, taxes and national security — immigration appears to be the most potent in Republican districts.

For example, an announcer in one advertisement produced by the campaign for Van Taylor, who is challenging a Democratic incumbent in Texas, warns over the sounds of a pounding kettle drum that his opponent, if elected, would pair up with Ms. Pelosi to raise taxes and offer welfare to immigrants. Voters are encouraged to “stop them” by voting for Mr. Taylor, to “protect our conservative values.”

Variations of the anti-Pelosi advertisements have appeared in past campaigns, but unlike in this case, the targets had already become speaker.

In addition to the Gingrich advertisements in 1996, the Republicans produced an advertisement in 1980 about Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., then the Democratic speaker, in which Mr. O’Neill refused to yield to warnings that his car was out of gas, intended as a metaphor for his party.

Mr. Gingrich’s spokesman, Rick Tyler, answered an e-mail message requesting comments about the anti-Pelosi advertisements with his own e-mail message: “Sorry. No interest here on that topic.”

In a recent interview, Ms. Pelosi said she was unconcerned about the advertisements because, she said, they had no traction with voters.

“The American people don’t know me,” she said.

But some Republicans running in close races are counting on her being wrong.

“Nancy Pelosi does not represent the values of middle Georgia,” said Ted Prill, the campaign manger for Mr. Collins, who is seeking a seat in the Third District. “There is a case to be made that a vote for a Democrat in Georgia is a vote for Nancy Pelosi.”