POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Aug 25, 2010
The fracas over Mufi Hannemann's "Compare and Decide" mailer that belittled Democratic opponent Neil Abercrombie's mainland birth, haole wife, UH education and congressional record is reminiscent of the 1994 governor's race that Ben Cayetano won over Pat Saiki and Frank Fasi.
The Republican Saiki started that campaign with a solid lead in the polls but ended up finishing third.
In a January 1995 analysis of the campaign from an advertising standpoint, Hawaii Business suggested Saiki's slide started with a TV ad in August 1994 accusing Fasi, who was running a third-party campaign after being jilted by the Republicans, of a "shakedown" in his Kukui Plaza scandal.
The magazine said the GOP mudslinging appeared "cheap and misleading," while the Democrat Cayetano came out looking statesmanlike by comparison.
Saiki's media adviser then was Keith Rollman, who more recently has been senior information technology adviser in the Hannemann mayoral administration and a volunteer in Hannemann's campaign for governor.
Rollman, who had a reputation for negative campaigning from his time as an adviser to Fasi's mayoral campaigns, was quoted in the Hawaii Business piece as saying the ill-fated "shakedown" ad was the Saiki campaign's way of testing the public's taste for negative ads and that the problem was mostly timing.
"If we had run that ad in the last two weeks (of the campaign), no one would have blinked, but we ran it in August and all hell broke loose," Rollman told the magazine.
Thus the similarity with Hannemann's "Compare and Decide," which seems to have backfired in the same way as Saiki's early attempt to go negative in 1994.
The sour public response to the Hannemann mailer provided Abercrombie a perfect opportunity to look statesmanlike in lecturing Hannemann that "this is not what a governor does; this is not what people want from a governor."
Hannemann took a stinging rebuke from senior U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, who disapproved of targeting the ethnicity of an opponent's wife: "To say that my wife is Japanese and yours is something else, that's not nice."
It gave former U.S. Rep. Ed Case an opening to endorse Abercrombie while depicting Hannemann as "the most dangerous politician in a generation," who practices "fear-based exclusionary machine politics."
The timing of the controversy for Hannemann is awful; Abercrombie has an edge in the polls, with absentee ballots going out soon for voters to start locking in choices.
It affects Hannemann's strategy for the rest of the campaign, in which he was expected to use his bigger bankroll to run an advertising blitz, including negative ads.
Now that he's raised voter sensitivity on negativity, he risks further attacks ads being dismissed as "there he goes again."