An attack ad released against Gov. John Hickenlooper last week started out like any other negative ad — grainy, black-and-white footage followed by a series of assaults on the governor for his failure to “make the tough decisions.”
The ad, which was paid for by the Republican Governors Association, included footage of Hickenlooper recently playing pool with President Obama at a downtown Denver bar.
It goes on to show footage of shots taken by a really bad pool player — who is symbolically Hickenlooper — as a narrator rattles off a laundry list of attacks on the governor's record.
“Colorado's been hustled enough,” the narrator says, before going on to tout Hickenlooper's opponent this fall, Republican former Congressman Bob Beauprez.
Almost immediately after the ad was released, Hickenlooper fired back with an ad of his own, one that was brutally … positive?
“Four years ago, we promised to run a positive campaign, and we did,” said Hickenlooper, looking right into the camera.
Hickenlooper then spends the next 30 seconds talking about how much the economy has improved under his watch and how communities are rebounding after floods ravaged parts of the state last year.
Hickenlooper made no reference to Beauprez in the ad. Nor has he done so in any other ad or campaign press release.
The Beauprez camp, meanwhile, has attacked Hickenlooper every chance it's had: “Flip-flops” on the death penalty; his “out of touch” gun-control agenda; and anything else they think will stick.
So far, it has been a story of two campaign strategies: one that fires away and reloads versus one that ducks the bullets and smiles.
“They want to paint Hickenlooper as bumbling or indecisive, but they've got to do something because Hickenlooper is not the easiest guy to attack, in part because people like him,” said John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University.
“But if they get too nasty, it could have a boomerang effect.”
Hickenlooper has pledged to run only positive campaigns in his political career and, so far, that strategy has paid dividends.
But what happens if the going gets tough for a governor who isn't used to throwing a punch?
“What if someone keeps taking a baseball bat to you and all of the sudden you find yourself down in the polls, then what do you do?” said Norman Provizer, a political science professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
'Both Ways Bob' ad hurt
Negative campaign attacks are as old as politics itself. And some of the most effective political ads have been mercilessly negative.
“People do not like negative advertising; at the same time, it has an impact on people,” Provizer said.
Beauprez is no stranger to the impact negative attacks can have on a campaign. His failed 2006 gubernatorial campaign was derailed in part by attacks — started by a fellow Republican — that labeled him “Both Ways Bob” on key issues.
For this campaign, Beauprez, through stump speeches, campaign statements and through outside political groups, has been trying to label Hickenlooper as a failed leader who flip-flops on issues.
“We intend to present the contrast between John Hickenlooper's failed leadership and Bob's plan for Colorado,” said Beauprez communications director Allen Fuller, defending the campaign's attacks.
Fuller also said voters shouldn't be bamboozled into thinking that Hickenlooper is merely taking the high road whenever attacks come his way.
“We've all read the blueprint, that Hickenlooper is running a positive campaign,” he said. “Coloradans are going to get the joke ... knowing full well that the Democratic Party and a host of blue groups are hitting back.”
Eddie Stern, a spokesman for the Hickenlooper campaign, said he isn't concerned about attacks from Beauprez sticking and resonating in the voters' minds while the governor runs a positive campaign.
“We don't think Colorado needs more negative campaigning or angry politics,” Stern said.
Provizer said he understands why those who want to see Hickenlooper lose are tempted to run attack ads.
“The simple reality is, the incumbent has a record,” he said. “When you've been in power and done things, you're going to have issues there that are a reality. But at some point (the other side) also has to come back with what it is going to do.”
Straayer said that those who are out to defeat Hickenlooper are piling on as many issues as they can, seeing as how the economic outlook in Colorado has been on the upswing in recent years.
“The economy is strong, so what are you going to do?” Straayer said. “To say he's got a failed governorship and look at the shape the state's in, it just doesn't sell very well in the trajectory of the economy. So what do you do? You jump on misstatements and on the death penalty.”
But polls over the summer have shown that Beauprez and Hickenlooper are locked in a tight race. And observers wonder if Hickenlooper will change his tone in October, if polls still show a close contest.
They also wonder if Hickenlooper is even capable of turning into an attack dog.
“When he's run before, it's been positive, good-humored and quirky, but honest and straightforward, and that's who he is as a candidate,” Provizer said. “He would have a harder time going negative because that's a real contradiction of what people think he is, and suddenly turning into a pit bull may not work.”