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Too much negativity! Voters fed up with ad blitz Keane-Collins race called disappointing

Christine Grant likens the candidates for Erie County executive to a pair of bickering siblings.

Grant says their public debate, or lack of it, is so shallow she may not vote next week. And the chief culprit is the barrage of negative TV ads coming from Democrat James P. Keane and Republican Christopher C. Collins.

"Both of them are acting like kids," said Grant, a Buffalo Democrat. "I don't know whether I want either one because I don't feel like I can trust either one."

And Grant's not alone in her anger.

"This is not the American way," said Judy Goodison, a Colden Republican. "The negativity has to go."

The source of their angst?

The seemingly endless supply of 30-second spots downplaying the big issues of the day -- taxes, jobs and economic development -- in favor of a televised slugfest.

For seven weeks, Keane and Collins have filled the airwaves with ads light on issues and heavy on personal and political attacks.

"They should run on their own two feet," said Robert Ruhland, a Town of Tonawanda Democrat. "I guess they don't have enough to brag about themselves."

Ruhland, Goodison and Grant were among the registered voters surveyed by The Buffalo News and WGRZ-TV as part of the news organizations' recent polling of the campaign.

To gauge voter reaction to the candidates' ads, The News went back to some of those voters and asked them for their assessment of the tone and tenor of the campaign.

Over and over again, you hear the same answer: They're sick of the negativity coming from both camps.

"I can't stand the ads," said Audrey Clarkson, an independent voter from Evans. "I also think it turns off voters, especially young people."

Clarkson plans to vote for Collins, but that didn't stop her from lambasting the Republican's TV ads.

"Absolutely," she said when asked whether they discouraged turnout on Election Day. "I'm sure it does."

>'It's way too much'

Voters point to Collins' recent ad criticizing Keane for his support of pay raises he received as a Buffalo Common Council member.

On the Keane side, there's the ad chastising Collins for his use of taxpayer-financed business incentives. The ad suggests that the Clarence business owner used them to close factories, export jobs and get rich.

And that's just two of the ads to air in recent weeks.

"It's way too much," said Jennie Kasniak, a Cheektowaga Democrat. "Every time you turn on the TV, it's nastiness."

Then why do politicians do it?

"They work," said Jack Cookfair, a Syracuse-based political consultant who often works on local races. "Everyone says they don't like negative advertising, but then they see the numbers move."

Of course, those numbers, from the polls, are how the candidates gauge whether they're ahead or behind and by how much.

>Expressing regret

Cookfair, a Republican consultant, is quick to add that negative advertising also can backfire.

"They have to be done with care, and they have to be believable," he said. "My preference is to use a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer."

Both Keane and Collins express regret at running the ads but say they felt compelled to respond to their opponent's attacks.

"Do you just stand there and get punched?" Collins said. "Or, at some point, do you punch back?"

Collins contends that Keane began the attacks with an anti-Collins ad that started the week before the Democratic primary Sept. 11. The ad tried to link Collins to two unpopular Republicans: President Bush and County Executive Joel A. Giambra.

A few weeks later, Collins used one of their few debates, Oct. 18 on WNED-TV, to issue a public challenge: He would pull his negative ads if Keane did likewise, an offer Keane called too little, too late.

Keane said Collins initiated the ugliness with his early and frequent characterizations of him as a "career politician."

"I had to respond," Keane said. "Chris Collins has used every opportunity to denigrate my public service. I think public service is a noble calling, and I'm proud of it."

>Trying to educate

When told that voters seem turned off by the ads, both men said their goal was just the opposite.

Collins said his intention was to educate voters by providing information they might not otherwise have about his Democratic opponent.

"I think they need to know where my opponent came from," he said of Keane's career in government. "I would hope people would see these ads as informative."

Like Collins, Keane said his ads are meant to educate voters, not turn them off.

He also argues that his ads are just one piece of his overall strategy for communicating with voters. He points to his numerous town meetings and news conferences, many of them devoted to the issues.

Collins, by contrast, has held only one news conference in seven weeks.

"Who's talking about issues?" Keane said. "I'm the one talking about issues."

Voters say they view the explanations from Collins and Keane as little more than excuses. They also like to compare the candidates to two children complaining: "He started it first. No, he started it first."

Christine Grant, the Democrat leaning toward Keane, said she has grown tired of the constant bickering. She also wonders whether this kind of political debate is why so many young people are fed up with Western New York.

"My son won't come back because of stuff like this," she said of her out-of-town offspring. "They just go back-and-forth, back-and-forth, and it turns me off."

>'Part of politics'

For some voters, negative ads have become commonplace. "I think it does turn people off," said Timothy Rapp, a Marilla Republican supporting Collins. "But I also have come to expect them because they're part of politics. They are salesmen, after all."

True, says Audrey Carlson, the independent voter from Evans, but imagine the good that could come from the hundreds of thousands of dollars the candidates spend each year on TV advertising.

"I would like to see them spend that money to build a new community center or buy new books for a school," she said. "But I also know that politicians attack each other. That's what they do."

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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