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By Willoughby Mariano August 25, 2010

Georgia gubernatorial hopeful Roy Barnes said it's possible to run a "civil and polite" campaign

Former and would-be governor Roy Barnes declared recently that it's possible to do what few politicians dare try: run a "civil and polite" campaign.

At the end of a Republican runoff rife with name-calling and false accusations, Barnes, a Democrat, gave morning anchors at Channel 2 Action News a homily on political civility

"I think that you can show differences without being mean," Barnes said Aug. 11. "You know, it’s a Southern tradition to be civil and polite. There are differences, but they’re honorable people. And so just because we have differences doesn’t mean that we have to call each other names.

"But we do have a responsibility to show the differences, and I think they do, too. As long as it’s done in a respectful way and one that’s not personal, I think that we can do that."

Barnes has worked to live by his words, his campaign spokesman Emil Runge said.

So Barnes thinks it's possible to run a respectful campaign. Has he run one?

AJC PolitiFact Georgia pulled out its Flip-O-Meter, which we keep on our desk next to our Truth-O-Meter. Politicians commonly shift their positions over time, sometimes for good reasons. The Flip-O-Meter determines whether such a shift has taken place.  

In an earlier item, PolitiFact Georgia ruled a claim by Barnes that he ran an all-positive TV ad campaign during the Democratic primary as Mostly True. His eight commercials generally took on a positive tone. They did not single out or criticize specific primary opponents, although he did take jabs at the state Legislature. 

At the time, Barnes didn't have to go negative. He polled way ahead of his challengers, and it was to his advantage to keep his party unified while Republicans squabbled.

Times have changed. Recent polls put Barnes either behind Republican nominee Nathan Deal or in a dead heat. And when candidates are behind, they tend to run negative commercials, political experts told AJC PolitiFact Georgia.

Those experts agree with Barnes that it's important for a candidate to demonstrate how he differs from the competition. That's the whole point of campaigning. And if one candidate has serious, legitimate problems, his opposition should mention it.

So what's negative campaigning? And how do you avoid it?

It's hard to say, said Richard Lau, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey who has studied political messages for decades.

"Negative" is often in the eye of the beholder, Lau said. The candidate making the unflattering accusations thinks he's telling the truth. His rival thinks he's the victim of a negative attack.

Deal does. Deal campaign spokesman Brian Robinson said Barnes has run a "100 percent" negative television ad campaign since Deal clinched his party's nomination this month.

Barnes' camp, however, thinks Georgians deserve to know about the issues the ads raise, Runge said.

Further complicating things is that much of political rhetoric, even the milder stuff, is way out of line in everyday life. You'd think twice about telling a fellow parishioner at a church picnic that he has ethical problems.

"You wouldn't say this face to face to a friend or acquaintance," said Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia.

So AJC PolitiFact Georgia's yardstick is the etiquette of political discussion, not a church picnic. And we acknowledge there is a spectrum of ads that can be perceived as "negative" that includes outrageous, vicious lies on one end and legitimate comparisons at the other.

Barnes' campaign has released three new TV commercials since the day of the runoff. In this item, we'll see whether he stays on the right side of the line.

"The Newspaper Says"

Barnes' first post-primary ad, "The Newspaper Says," came out Aug. 10, the day of the Republican gubernatorial runoff. 

"This great state is falling behind," an announcer begins. A finger clicks through what appear to be newspaper articles on a touch-screen tablet computer about mortgage foreclosures, an ethics investigation and job losses. The headlines come from actual articles.

"Do we continue down the same path, with the same team that gave us ethics violations, teacher furloughs, tax breaks to special interests, homes foreclosed and misplaced priorities? Or do we work our way back?" the announcer asks. 

The ad is critical of "the same team" and "more of the same," but the announcer doesn't portray any individual or government body in a negative light. All the issues it raises are real and stated accurately.

"Newspapers Deal"

Barnes' second ad, released Aug. 13, is much like the first one. The finger's there. So's the touch-screen. It opens with the same words: "This great state is falling behind."

But this one calls out Deal by name, accusing him of being "distracted" with "ethical charges" as the state suffers.

The ad closes with "Nathan Deal: just more of the same."

Deal's name appears on a rusty real estate-type 'For Sale' sign, which breaks and tumbles to the ground.

This ad raises ethics accusations against Deal that are well established by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other news organizations. The headlines it uses come from actual articles. The description of the complaints is mindful of the fact that while a congressional ethics investigation found that Deal possibly violated U.S. House rules, he resigned from Congress in March before any formal accusation was made.

The ad's finale strays from an everyday definition of "polite," but overall, the ad is well-sourced and carefully worded. And former Secretary of State Karen Handel called Deal far worse in the Republican runoff.


Barnes' "Hiding," released Aug. 18, is his most aggressive so far. It gives Deal a loopy sound effect: a slide whistle.

"Roy Barnes released 25 years of tax returns. Online," it says. "Nathan Deal refuses to disclose his income taxes."
A cutout of Deal's head appears. His eyes and nose peer over the words: "What is he hiding this time?" 

That slide whistle blows, and the rusty real estate sign breaks apart once more. Then comes the unflattering slogan from the last commercial: "Nathan Deal. Just more of the same."

Deal declined to release his tax returns but may in the future.

The ad also appears on a website PolitiFact Georgia found Friday, It asks, "Did his backroom deals as a Congressman break the law as has been charged? We have a right to know." And it offers readers the chance to sign a petition.

There are a couple of problems with this. "What is he hiding?" is insinuation. And the site treats accusations of "backroom deals" as fact.

So is Barnes running a "polite" and "civil" campaign?

All of Barnes' ads, even his most aggressive one, "Hiding," raise legitimate issues such as ethics accusations against Deal. For the most part, they portray those issues accurately.

But as time has passed, the imagery and language show Barnes' campaign has changed in tone. Consider the slide whistle and the cutout of Deal's head and the "backroom deals" accusation.

Our experts agreed that "The Newspaper Says" isn't negative. "Newspapers Deal" might be considered negative by Deal's camp, but it stuck to legitimate issues.

"Hiding," however, is different. 

"That is verging on what I think most people would be calling a negative ad," Lau said.

Barnes' ads are not nearly as nasty as those in the Republican gubernatorial runoff, but with each new TV commercial he has moved further from "civil and polite" territory. 

We give Barnes a Half Flip.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Roy 2010 page, accessed Aug. 23

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Georgia Elections Central blog, "New Barnes ad hits Deal for refusing to release tax returns," Aug. 18, 2010

Website, "What is Congressman Deal Hiding?," accessed Aug. 23, 2010

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Georgia leads nation in bankruptcy filings," Dec. 29, 2006

Associated Press, "Georgia Ethics Commission officials investigated," Nov. 21, 2009

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Foreclosures: No rush on debt relief in Georgia," June 1, 2008

Associated Press, "Newspaper: Grand jury sought Deal documents," July 28, 2010, "Georgia's economy is worse than most states," July 28, 2010

Interview, Richard Lau, political scientist, Rutgers University, Aug. 20, 2010

Interview, Charles Bullock, political scientist, University of Georgia, Aug. 20, 2010

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Georgia gubernatorial hopeful Roy Barnes said it's possible to run a "civil and polite" campaign

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