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    Voters say 'no' to negative, high-cost ads

    State Senate campaigns emphasizing personal attacks see that most people don't respond positively.

    By LUCY MORGAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 7, 2000


    TALLAHASSEE -- Florida voters rejected most of the big spending special interest campaigns and personal attacks against candidates in legislative races this week.

    But the top vote getters in most races also were the candidates that raised the most money -- a situation that is likely to see record-breaking expenditures as campaigns gear up for runoffs and the November general election.

    Campaign spending in one Senate primary topped $1-million even before voters went to the polls on Tuesday. In that race, Rep. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, soundly defeated Rep. Sharon Merchant, R-Palm Beach Gardens.

    Pruitt raised $679,024 -- twice as much as Merchant had -- but credits his victory to a reaction from voters who didn't like the personal attacks included in Merchant's ads.

    Pruitt said one negative ad distributed to voters by his opponent did more than anything else to help him win.

    The ad accused Pruitt of selling his votes to special interest contributors "and people who pay him for deals outside of the state Capitol." Featuring Pruitt's head on a cartoon character, the ad continued "See Ken sell us out, See Ken sell out the environment."

    "It actually backfired on her," Pruitt said Wednesday. "It was too much."

    Pruitt, now facing only write-in opposition in November, said he hopes his own race is used as an example to show that personal attacks often backfire.

    Not everyone agreed. Senate Majority Leader Jack Latvala said he believes the negative ads worked in another Senate race where Rep. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, defeated Rep. Harry Goode, R-Melbourne.

    The state's trial lawyers, doctors and police unions all attacked Goode with independent ads, but Goode also put out negative ads attacking Posey for being soft on crime.

    On Wednesday, Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas said Tuesday night's election "took care" of the candidates that Democrats had hoped to use to build a coalition that would unseat Republican Senate President designate John McKay.

    "Our political adversaries had a very bad night," Cardenas said, adding that most of their hand-picked candidates were defeated.

    Not so fast, Democratic Party Chairman Bob Poe said later.

    "They (the Republicans) are losing across the board," Poe added. "They are behind in the presidential race, behind in the U.S. Senate race, they are going to lose congressional seats and they will lose seats in the state House and Senate."

    Cardenas, Poe and others did agree on one thing: They would like to get rid of the independent committees that are spending money in legislative races.

    Poe said he hopes the reaction of voters will send a message that voters don't like such expenditures.

    Feeney promised the law will be changed when legislators return to Tallahassee next year.

    "When voters see an attack ad, they should be able to determine where it is coming from," Feeney said. "The parties and candidates can be held accountable if there is false or wrongful conduct. That can't happen with independent groups."

    There also is a larger problem with independent expenditures, Feeney said. When a group spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to help defeat an opponent, the beneficiary owes the group a debt.

    "I'm unlikely to owe an individual that contributes $250," Feeney said.

    The committees are operating under a loophole that developed when a federal judge in Orlando blocked state elections officials from enforcing a law that required independent committees to report contributions and expenditures.

    No one is sure how much money is being spent by several independent committees backed by the state's trial lawyers, doctors and Associated Industries of Florida.

    The trial lawyers are backing two groups: Florida Consumer Advocates and the Counsel for a Safer Florida. Associated Industries and the Tidewater Consulting lobbying group have formed the Alliance for Consumer Protection and the Florida Medical Association is backing People for a Better Florida.

    The groups spent money on television and direct mail advertising targeting individual legislators. Most of the money went into attempts to defeat Rep. Janegale Boyd, a Monticello Democrat, and Rep. Lee Constantine, an Altamonte Springs Republican.

    Constantine faces Democrat Ron Ellman in November. Boyd made it into a runoff against Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee.

    Jon Shebel, president of Associated Industries, said he believes trial lawyers spent close to $300,000 attacking Boyd with direct mail and television ads. He said his committee retaliated with television ads that denounced Boone and helped in other ways.

    "I don't like negative ads," Shebel said. "But we have created our committee to defend conservative candidates against these attacks."

    - Researcher Stephanie Scruggs contributed to this report.

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    From the Times state desk