Issues, not insults

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 30, 2002

We're inclined to take most political polls with a very large pinch of salt. They can offer a snapshot of trends, but rare is the poll that can predict the outcome of an electoral race with precision.

There are too many intangibles, including fickle human nature. Even so, candidates put more stock in poll results than they likely are to admit. To a surprising degree, polling data drive campaigns from the grass roots level all the way to the presidency.

The Alabama governor's race is no exception. Two polls, issued just a few days apart, show the race between

Democrat incumbent Don Siegelman and Republican challenger Bob Riley is neck and neck, while Libertarian hopeful John Sophocleus is somewhere below the water line.

It is no coincidence, we believe, that the campaign has taken a decided turn for the worse. Jockeying for advantage, candidates have begun to unleash attack ads that have put the tenor of the election on a slick downhill road.

A new poll by the Alabama Education Association/sreleased late last week shows Riley at 44

percent and Siegelman with 42 percent. The results are right in line with a poll the week before

from the Business Council of Alabama showing the candidates with 43 percent each.

The campaign, according to those polls, is a statistical logjam

a dead heat, with neither candidate slipping past the other

and both are looking to dynamite it with negative ads.

From the beginning, Riley has pledged to "restore honor and integrity to the governor's office," a not-so-veiled reference to Siegelman's well-publicized ethics problems. Lately, Siegelman has been hitting back.

His latest ad claims unnamed out-of-state companies aren't paying their corporate income taxes. It asks rhetorically if the state should force them to pay. "Don Siegelman says yes. Bob Riley says no," it concludes.

Taxes are a sensitive subject with Riley, who was the subject of recent newspaper stories detailing his failure to pay them on time. Responding to the newest Siegelman salvo, which he says is a distortion of his views, Riley has pledged, in effect, that there will be no more Mr. Nice Guy.

According to a Mobile Register article, Riley says from now on, he will devote his considerable financial resources to knocking down the charges in the governor's attack ads, even if it leaves him without funds to run a positive advertising campaign based on issues.

"From this point on, every time the governor tells a lie on television, we're going to call him on it,"

Riley vowed.

The prospect of two months of "liar, liar, pants on fire" does not make us particularly eager to follow the remainder of the campaign, such as it is. Nor is it likely to fill many voters with a burning desire to go to the polls on Election Day.

We want the candidates for governor to drop this shallow, negative grandstanding and start talking about issues of substance. We'd like to know, for example, what they specifically propose to do to stop the shocking slippage

that has seen Alabama sink from 46th to 48th among the states in the care of its children.

We'd like to know where we will get the money to save our schools next year, to shore up the general Fund, to pay for adequate public safety and to meet a court order on prison crowding.

We'd like some meat in this campaign. Unfortunately, it looks like we'll get precious little of it as the candidates respond to polls, not needs.

Tuscaloosa News

Sept. 8, 2002