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Understanding commercials requires context

Understanding the context of political ads in the space of mere 30 seconds is nearly impossible without a little bit of history.

While few would argue that campaign spots should be longer - 1 millisecond would be too long for some - background on the governor's race helps.

Since Sonny Perdue has raised more than twice as much money as Mark Taylor, Perdue has aired the most spots so far, a new one practically every week. He gave us "Sonny Did" and "Sonny Do" and a heap of self-righteousness in his condemnation of Taylor's fledgling broadcast volley.

Perdue enlisted the help of wife Mary and dog Lucy in wishing that there would be no negative ads "like there were in the Democratic primary." Clearly, that was an effort to remind Cathy Cox supporters why they didn't like Taylor for his spirited ads attacking her before her loss in the July 18 preliminaries. (That impression was cemented by an appearance with her this week at the ribbon-cutting of a Capitol history display that Taylor wasn't included in.)

Ironically, Perdue's campaign was mailing a pretty vicious attack ad across the state before the couple's lamentation aired. While it has always been obvious to political observers that Taylor had no choice but to attack Perdue the way every challenger must, the Perdue team gambled wrong in thinking Taylor would have already thrown the first punch by the time the mailing was delivered.

But Taylor was saving his meager resources until later in the campaign, resulting in Perdue issuing the first attack rather than a brilliantly timed counter-punch.

The mailing, by the way, accuses Taylor siding with "radical homosexuals" in opposing the Boy Scouts because he allegedly put the kibosh on a House bill that would have outlawed appropriation of state funds to any entity that prohibited the Scouts from meeting at its facilities.

The Taylor camp has said the lieutenant governor relied on legal experts who warned the legislation would have had unintended consequences. Besides, it was its Republican author who formally withdrew the measure from consideration because he sensed trouble, according to an editorial the Perdue campaign cites as its source in the mailer.

Some ads from both sides have aimed for the funny bone by featuring their opponents. Yet they all revolve around one complicated issue - Perdue's real estate investing.

Taylor introduced the topic with an ad showing Perdue at his desk supposedly signing a bill while an insolent announcer says the governor signed legislation that would give himself a $100,000 break on his personal state income taxes. The taxes would have otherwise been due on the sale of land Perdue inherited from his parents, reinvesting the $2 million proceeds in Florida land, which Taylor's campaign says is worth $40 million, based on sales of nearby acreage.

Another plays a clip of Perdue responding to a caller to an Atlanta radio talk show when he was the guest. The caller asks how he could get a friend to push such a generous tax-break through, to which Perdue attempts levity by replying "get elected governor."

With his attempt to defuse the issue with humor, Perdue is airing a spot of him looking into the camera and offering to sell Taylor the land for $20 million or even $10 million. Then the Republican's own insolent announcer says, "How can we believe a single word Mark Taylor says," as the nose on Taylor's photo grows with every word.

The Democrats say Perdue has been using his office for personal gain because he got a sweetheart deal from a political appointee on the land near Walt Disney World. They filed a formal ethics complaint last week accusing Perdue of deliberately low-balling the value of the parcel on the financial-disclosure form he filed with the state, reporting it at its tax assessed value of $185,000 rather than either the price he paid or the fair market value.

Perdue's staff simply says he did nothing wrong.

The Democrats also raise a less dramatic example of alleged misuse of the office - campaigning with taxpayer staff and assets.

Four times, staff from the governor's official office have arranged press conferences and distributed news releases about a "policy announcement" that wound up the subject of a TV ad the same day or one or two days later.

"He has a serious addiction problem to state money; he's either spending state money on his campaign for governor or stuffing his pockets with it," said Taylor spokesman Rick Dent.

These ads could be minor irritants for an incumbent leading by 20 points, or his response to them could shave enough of Perdue's lead off to throw him into a runoff. Many observers say his Pinocchio ad won't succeed in deflecting the issue and will instead draw more attention to it than Taylor's budget could have achieved.

Plus, they say, it casts the governor in a bad light to be calling names and tossing around multimillion-dollar figures that would go into his own pocket when the average voter would be content with a fraction of that amount.

Most surprising is that the candidates are spending so much energy slinging mud at each other when a recent poll showed voters were most interested in crime, education, tax cuts, health care and other substantive issues and that only about 1 percent were swayed by allegations of improprieties.

Walter Jones is the bureau chief for Morris News Service and has covered Georgia politics since 1998. E-mail him at walter.jones@morris.com. Have any thoughts about this column? Share them with us at letters@gwinnettdailypost.com. Letters should be no more than 200 words and are subject to approval by the publisher. Letters may be edited for style and space requirements. Please sign your name and provide an address and a daytime telephone number. Address letters for publication to: Letters to the Editor, Gwinnett Daily Post, P.O. Box 603, Lawrenceville, GA 30046-0603. The fax number is 770-339-8081.