HELENA - For better or worse, politics increasingly is a contact sport in Montana, as Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mike Taylor learned before dropping out of the race.
Or as Finley Peter Dunne's fictional Chicago barkeep Mr. Dooley put a century ago, "Politics ain't beanbag."
Taylor suspended campaigning last week after the Montana Democratic Party, using national Democratic Party soft money, ran a biting TV ads accusing Taylor of running "a student loan scam" at his Colorado beauty and barber school in the 1990s, a charge he disputed. The ad showed footage of a Denver TV program Taylor had in the 1980s with him sporting a full beard and wearing a "Saturday Night Fever" type tight-fitting suit, complete with open collar and lots of gold chains, giving a facial to a male model. Taylor said the ad falsely insinuated he is gay.
Taylor, who had trailed Democratic incumbent Max Baucus 54 percent to 35 percent in a Lee Newspapers poll Sept. 24-26, tumbled even further behind, 58 percent to 25 percent, after the Democrats' ad, a GOP poll taken Oct. 6-7 showed.
Taylor's name will still remain on the ballot.
It became clear later in the week that the Democratic ads weren't the only reason Taylor dropped out. National Republicans refused to put any more money in Montana and decided to put their money in other races where they had better chances. Taylor would have had to dump hundreds of thousands of his own money into the campaign on top of the $1 million he had already donated to have a chance. And Taylor's repeated pleas for a campaign visit by President Bush, still widely popular in Montana, went unheeded.
So Taylor folded his campaign decried negative ads and went pheasant hunting with his wife, Janna, and their dog, leaving a number of questions in wake of last week's events.
Was the Democratic Party ad fair? Was it gay-baiting?
"I ran the thing three times. I don't see anything that implies or suggests sex," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication and a frequent commentator on political advertising. She said Taylor looked like "a '60s hippie."
"Ads that want to play to homophobia are usually very obvious," she said. "They're not subtle."
In a telephone interview, Jamieson said Taylor plausibly may have dropped in the polls because of the charges revealed in the ad that he misused federal funds at his hair-care school. She said the Democrats had a perfect right to discuss the federal education money issue and "a perfect right to show the picture."
Why didn't Taylor inoculate himself or pre-empt the attack months ago by making public the details of the controversies with the U.S. Department of Education?
"If this is factually accurate and he did not reveal it, he has made a huge error," Jamieson said. "This is very bad strategic judgment. The electorate understands if he really didn't do anything wrong, he should have spoken to us."
She said the electorate doesn't like cover-ups, with one president, Richard Nixon, forced to resign because of the Watergate scandal, and damaged others.
"If you've made a mistake, admit it, explain and apologize," she said. Jamieson also wondered why Democrats revealed the details of federal funds controversy and why the press didn't uncover it earlier.
What does it mean for the future?
"This may be the first time soft money lead to a demise of a campaign before the election," said Craig Wilson, political science professor at Montana State University-Billings, who tracks the use of soft money in campaigns.
The future of soft money - unlimited, unregulated money given to national parties - remains in question. The McCain-Feingold law passed earlier this year bans soft money, but it has been challenged in court by both political parties and lobbyist groups.
Is there a pattern of Baucus counting on third-party sources - the Democratic Party, the Montana AFL-CIO and others - to do the his dirty work by bashing his opponent while he takes the high road?
This has certainly happened in some of Baucus' past campaigns as well. However, Baucus has been the victim of similar attacks funded by soft money from Republican and conservative groups.
Why did the Democrats even bother with the attack ads on Taylor when Baucus already had a big lead?
Wilson said Democrats may have wanted to show the nation that Montana is not as Republican as believed.
"They also hope that he'll have coattails and help Democrats, especially in legislative races," Wilson said.
Democrats picked up a huge gain of 17 state legislative seats in 1990 with Baucus at the top of the ticket when he swamped Lt. Gov. Allen Kolstad by a 68 to 29 percent margin. Democrats had net losses of one state legislative seat both in 1996 and 1984, the other two Baucus re-election campaigns.
What are the long-term consequences of negative campaigning?
Research by political scientists has shown that negative campaigning can be effective, but it also drives down voter turnout.
Speaking in general terms, Jim Lopach, University of Montana political science professor, said: "I think a party or a candidate tends to use negative campaigning when they feel vulnerable. It's well known that negative advertising works in a sense that uncommitted voters process the information more deeply and are more influenced by the message than by a positive ad."
Political scientists divide the electorate into several groups - actively interested voters, reluctant voters and nonvoters.
"There's not a whole lot of difference between the nonvoter and the one that's apathetic," Lopach said. "Research shows both of these groups are cynical about politics and elections. This kind of negative advertising abets that kind of attitude. It probably drives turnout down even more. If the cycle goes on, the negative ads have got to be even more negative to provide the jolt for these apathetic people to vote."
However, Lopach said there clearly is a place for credible and valid negative ads for one candidate to point out reasons not to vote for the other. Charles Johnson is chief of the Lee Newspapers State Bureau in Helena. He may be reached at (800) 525-4920 or (406) 443-4920. His e-mail address is: email@example.com