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Candidates' ads shun the use of 're-elect'

Jeff Atwater and J.D. Alexander are beaming, eager to bring new life to Tallahassee, ready to tackle high property insurance and cut wasteful government spending.

The campaign mailers for the state Senate candidates are fairly routine, except in one striking regard: Neither lets on that he is an incumbent.

To voters, they are simply Jeff and J.D.

Yet Atwater and Alexander are two of the most powerful Republicans in the Florida Legislature, with 18 years of experience between them.

The omission of "re-elect" — long an advantage exploited by incumbents of both parties — is an emerging trend that acknowledges poor public opinion for elected officials, campaign experts say.

The worry runs from Congress to the statehouse on down.

In Pasco County, Commissioner Jack Mariano, a Republican, worried about using "re-elect" in advertisements but then decided to go with it.

"There is definitely a backlash, a 'throw-the-rascals-out' thing going on," said Tallahassee-based political consultant Doug McAlarney.

"Voters everywhere are mad at politicians," agreed Roger Austin, a consultant who works on legislative races in Central Florida.

"Clearly, the Republican brand is more tarnished," he added, referring to President Bush's low approval ratings. "But I think Democratic incumbents are in trouble, too."

Democrats took over Congress in 2006, and their public approval rating has plummeted to single digits in some polls.

State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, worries about being associated with the federal government.

"You'd be amazed at how many phone calls and letters I get from people complaining about what's happening in Washington," he said. As a result, Fasano plans to add special emphasis to the "state" designation on his campaign literature.

Austin, who used to work for the Republican Party of Florida, was recently traveling with a friend in Orlando and came across a political mailer with a familiar face. "We both looked at each other and said, 'Isn't that an incumbent?' and then burst out laughing."

But now, after reflecting on the public mood, Austin says he has not ruled out doing the same for his own candidates, whom he declined to name.

McAlarney isn't sure he will go that far, but he will emphasize reform with the campaign ads he produces. For instance, he plans to note that state Rep. Ed Homan, R-Tampa, supported a law barring legislators from accepting meals and gifts from lobbyists.

"It may have been a couple of years ago," McAlarney said of the vote, "but maybe people haven't heard it yet."

The trend is not limited to Florida. Campaign ads nationwide are avoiding some of the sharper partisan language of the past and favoring personal attributes over party.

"People want straight talk right now, without all the political trappings. I think you'll see more human, real language," said Tampa media consultant Adam Goodman.

Atwater and Alexander stand out because of their prominence.

Atwater, from North Palm Beach, is a prolific fundraiser for the GOP (for his race alone, he raised $1.6-million through March). He's also in line to become the next Senate president, assuming he wins in November. Alexander, from Winter Haven, is a more subtle power player.

Neither would talk to a reporter about their campaign ads, which also mask their party affiliation. One has to read the small print to realize they are Republicans.

"I think people are way overthinking it," said Rick Wilson, Atwater's campaign consultant, who has called the oversight a "scrivener's error."

As for the Atwater mailer's various references to "change" — a buzz word most associated with Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama — Wilson said Atwater has fought for change before it became the "flavor of the month."

But Democrats contend the Atwater and Alexander ads show that they are hiding something. "Republicans should apologize for insulting the intelligence of every Floridian," said Eric Jotkoff, Florida Democratic Party spokesman.

Republican Party of Florida spokeswoman Erin VanSickle said the desire for change is shared by both parties. Any anti-incumbent sentiment, she said, is a Washington problem.

"Florida is different," she said. "Republicans have a strong record to run on here."

Times staff writer David DeCamp contributed to this report.

Candidates' ads shun the use of 're-elect' 07/24/08 [Last modified: Sunday, July 27, 2008 8:52pm]
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