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Candidates preparing for the homestretch

By By Steve Flowers
With the general election looming both sides in the governor's race are preparing for the final four week sprint to the finish line on Nov. 7. These last few weeks will be critical and the last few days will be very critical. When it boils down to the last week there will only be about 5 percent of the electorate who are undecided in this high profile contest. At this time both sides' highly paid consultants are planning their strategy and campaign ads for the final week.
The polling data being crunched will tell each side where their votes are and what ad will keep them in line, but more importantly each teams pollster will have identified who the pivotal undecideds are and what their hot buttons are so they can sit down with their partner, the media consultant, and design an ad to win that fence-sitter over.
Lucy Baxley is trying to become the first female governor elected completely on her own merits. Bob Riley is trying to become the first governor to win reelection since 1990. The incumbent governor has lost in the last three elections. In 1994 incumbent Democrat Jim Folsom Jr. lost to Republican Fob James. In 1998 Republican Fob James lost to Democrat Don Siegelman. In 2002 incumbent Democrat Don Siegelman lost to Republican challenger Bob Riley in a squeaker. The race between Siegelman and Riley was basically a dead heat and only about 2000 disputed votes separated the two.
Riley, who is riding the wave of a strong state economy, is leading in the polls. He also has a tremendous financial advantage over Lt. Gov. Baxley.
The highly paid out-of-state consultants, who came into the state with national reputations as hired guns, take over a campaign and make most of the decisions. Riley, who has amassed more campaign money than anybody in Alabama history, is spending it lavishly. He probably has one of the most highly regarded campaign men in the country in Dax Swatek, who is a master of negative campaigning. He likes it and will always go negative. However he has to be careful when attacking a woman, especially in the south. There are indications that it has already backfired.
The rule of thumb among the national experts like Swatek is that if you are in the catbird seat like Riley found himself in around August you try to bury your opponent before they get out of the gate. The traditional launching date for campaign ads is after Labor Day. With more money than they knew what to do with the Riley campaign began their attack ads on Lucy Baxley in mid August. Their mission was to define her as a liberal. They were hoping that it would stick. However, after bombarding her with the liberal ad for three solid weeks it wasn't working. Her numbers stayed the same and actually improved a few points.
Baxley does not have the financial resources to keep up with Riley. Her initial ads, which started just after Labor Day, were quasi-negative. She softly hit him with the property tax issue. The annual property tax reappraisal he enacted may be a real issue.
It was thought that Riley might be vulnerable on the Indian gambling money connection to his 2002 campaign. However, his media people squelched it by confusing the issue and accusing Baxley of also taking gambling money. Riley's advisors have positioned him against assault. He is portrayed and projected as gubernatorial. He also appears to have a teflon coating that disallows mud to stick. With a twenty point lead in the polls he is cruising like a freight train.
Riley could be vulnerable to ads that remind voters of his 2003 $1.2 billion tax plan he proposed. In addition, there are campaign fundraising tactics that have a tainted appearance. In his initial 2006 campaign disclosure it was revealed that Riley received a $300,000 contribution from a Huntsville biotech center after they received a $50 million state grant. This connection is awfully suspicious. Siegelman was indicted for a similar contribution connection.
These topics would be good fodder for negative ads. However, it is doubtful that Baxley will have the money to exploit these issues. With four weeks to go Riley's money advantage may be too hard to overcome.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama's leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 70 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the State Legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us <http://www.steveflowers.us/>.