BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Looking at the campaign ads now flooding the airwaves and the Internet, you can't help but notice two interesting trends. First, Republicans dare not speak their name. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
MALE ANNOUNCER: -- Honest, independent, doing what's right.
MALE ANNOUNCER: Congresswoman Deborah Pryce, independent, experienced, effective.
MALE ANNOUNCER: Independently, effectively, courageously, Congressman John Sweeney, a New York story.
BOB GARFIELD: And then there's the second trend, Democrats wanting to cast their Republican opponents as the spawn of Bush. Any photo of a G.O.P. candidate posing with the President is being treated by Democrats like a smoking gun for sympathy with the devil. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
MALE ANNOUNCER: On every important vote for George Bush's agenda, Rob Simmons has been there.
MALE ANNOUNCER: This year we have a choice -- a congressman who stands with George Bush and his special interest friends -- or someone who will stand -
MALE ANNOUNCER: The people running this war are incompetent.
MALE ANNOUNCER: And all John Cowell does is make excuses for Bush.
BOB GARFIELD: This week we're zooming in on the Senate race in densely populated New Jersey, where Democrats usually win, but not necessarily, and where candidates must spend very big bucks to place ads in both the New York and Philadelphia media markets in order to be seen and heard throughout New Jersey. The Senate race in New Jersey is between Democratic incumbent Robert Menendez and Republican challenger Thomas Kean Jr. It's one of only four Senate races that The New York Times deems a toss-up at this point. WNYC reporter Bob Hennelly has been covering the race and watching the commercials, and he joins me now with his report. Bob, welcome to OTM.
BOB HENNELLY: Afflicted by the commercials, actually.
BOB GARFIELD: I feel your pain. [HENNELLY LAUGHS] Republicans, I guess, are [LAUGHING] running from the word "Republican" in their advertising. It's apparently confusing to some people. You had a conversation with a voter who was flummoxed by the whole thing.
BOB HENNELLY: Well, flummoxed or informed. What happened was Scott Garrett is a congressman from Northern New Jersey. He's very conservative, very Republican, except this year he sent his mass mailer out without reference to his party orientation, and thus made himself, at least to this voter, more accessible, because, as she pointed out, normally she doesn't look at any kind of Republican literature.
WOMAN: That's why I ended up reading his literature, because usually when I see Republican, I throw it in the garbage -- no offense to the Republicans.
BOB HENNELLY: As a matter of fact, when we finished our chat, she had convinced herself she was indeed going to vote for Scott Garrett, because he was a, quote, "independent voice for the environment."
BOB GARFIELD: Now, what about the Kean race? He also exactly isn't wearing his G.O.P. elephant on his sleeve, is he?
BOB HENNELLY: What Kean has been doing is running himself as a reformer who's going to clean up Trenton. And, of course, being a U.S. senator, the focus would be Washington, but you hear in this ad he very much wants to agitate voters about what's happening with New Jersey's Democratic Party, where Menendez is vulnerable. And that's why this kind of ad is very effective. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
FEMALE ANNOUNCER: Bob Menendez is under federal criminal investigation for steering nine million dollars in taxpayer money to a Hudson County group and taking over 300,000 dollars for himself.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. A vote for Menendez is a vote for New Jersey corruption. But the Democrats, on their side, are saying that a vote for Kean is a vote for George Bush. Tell me what that advertising looks like.
BOB HENNELLY: It's very reliant on the war in Iraq as the major driver here. One of the things that's happened in New Jersey, ahead of, perhaps, the nation, is that they don't see a connection between 9/11 and the war in Iraq and haven't for a while. They're about running 18 months ahead of the national average on this. And so by this point, I think some two-thirds of the public believes that the war is not going well, and so the degree to which that Menendez can capitalize on that, he's going to advance himself. Menendez also has the actual historical distinction of being one of the few House members who voted against the Iraq war early on.
BOB GARFIELD: The New York Times, in its online election guide for 2006, describes the races in every state, and for New Jersey, the little blurb says, "The tight race will probably be decided by TV commercials." That is quite a statement. Do you actually think it's true?
BOB HENNELLY: No. It's about turnout -- who can manage to motivate their base and tug on the independents to follow through and vote. We're in a period of civic disengagement right now in America. People get disillusioned by these ads, get turned off. 1970 was the best year for looking at comparisons. That was a time where America was at war abroad and had high anxiety at home. In that election, 70 percent of the people bothered to turn out. Experts are expecting between 45 to 50 percent to turn out this time.
BOB GARFIELD: Bob, thank you very much for joining us.
BOB HENNELLY: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Bob Hennelly is a reporter for WNYC. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]