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Half truths and innuendos can get you far in this world, especially in election campaigns.

The toxic nature of political campaigns is nothing new.  You should have heard what they called each other back in the day—and I mean in 1790.

But, this was before we put the mass in mass media. Rants in dinky daily newspapers, handbills handed out at rallies, whispers down the alley about a candidate’s, um, life habits. It was weak tea in terms of its reach.

This negative campaigning has always been the cockroach of politics.  An ugly little creature.

With the reach and power of today’s media—particularly television advertising—it is still as ugly, just not as little.  First, think of a cockroach.  Now, think of a 250-pound cockroach.

I mention this as a prelude to an election season likely to be marked by huge cockroaches, most of them set loose by the handlers and media consultants to Gov. Tom Corbett.

In his quest for re-election, Corbett faces two obstacles.

He is stone cold unpopular, with an approval rating among voters in the low 20’s.  For a politician these are toxic numbers.  Even his political and regional bases (conservatives and Pittsburgh-area voters) seem to be sour on him.

His Democratic opponent is a mild-mannered businessman named Tom Wolf.  Wolf seems to have led an exemplary life: a loyal husband, a good father, a benign boss, a regular guy beloved in his local community. And Wolf just spent $10 million on TV ads in the primary to burnish that image.

What’s worse, from a political standpoint, is that Wolf has no record.  He never held elected office.  He has never voted pro or con on legislation.  He is, as far as these markers are concerned, close to a cipher.  If your job is to do attack ads on such a candidate it is hard to find an angle to play.

The most you can say about Wolf—and he’ll say it himself—is that he is a progressive Democrat, also known (in the perfervid language of TV ads) as a tax-and-spend Democrat with a radical agenda.

The shortage of interesting descriptors in modern politics is distressing and the media is mostly to blame.  We like to fit everyone somewhere along the conservative-to-liberal markers on the ideological rulers we carry around.

So, Wolf gets the stick-on lapel label that reads Liberal and Corbett gets the one, written in magic marker that reads Conservative.

I don’t think this race will center on Liberal v. Conservative.

It will have more to do with intangibles—notions such as leadership, competence and empathy. In marketing, it is known as the Q Score—a scale that rates, say, a TV personality on his familiarity and appeal to an audience.

It was this Q Score factor that helped Wolf in the primary.  Of course, he was the first one up with TV ads—and thus gained an advantage—but his ads put the spotlight on his character and he came across as a warm, friendly mensch.

Since there was little difference politically among the four Democrats running for governor, these intangibles counted for a lot. Voters made up their mind about Wolf early and saw no reason to change it.

Corbett’s people are going to have to bring Wolf’s Q Score down.  They are going to have to replace that warm, friendly, likable persona with a new made-up one. Sneaky, underhanded, duplicitous, sleazy are words that come to mind. Wolf is none of these, but that is beside the point. If you are the TV guy for a disliked incumbent you’ve got to get the challenger disliked even more, even if it means making shit up.

In the last filing in May, the governor’s campaign committee had a balance of $6.5 million, enough to begin an early round of advertising to chip away at Wolf’s persona.

A lot of politicos I talk to believe that Corbett’s access to money, combined with this strategy, could resurrect his chances of re-election.

I’m not going to doubt the power of negative advertising.  It works.  And there is no doubt the incumbent can diminish the point spread in Wolf’s favor that is likely to show up in the first post-election poll.

But, while simultaneously knocking down Wolf’s Q Score, the governor’s media team is going to have to try to raise Corbett’s—and that strikes me as a bridge too far.

When people look at Corbett they don’t see leadership, competence and empathy. He surely can regain his base among conservative Republicans, but he’s going to have a hard time luring Democrats and independents to his side.

Corbett may be suffering from the Rick Santorum Syndrome.

That’s my name for the malady that inflicts an incumbent whose negatives are so deep and fixed among voters that he cannot convince them to support him—no matter how much time, money and effort he puts into changing their minds.

It is named, of course, after the former U.S. Senator.  In 2006, Santorum faced Bob Casey—another friendly, likable guy.  In the earliest polls, he was behind the Democratic challenger by 19 points.

Santorum spent $20 million in advertising to move those numbers—with both negative ads against Casey and clever positives about Rick Santorum that tried to convince voters he was, at heart, a nice guy.

On Election Day, Santorum lost to Casey by 17 points.  He spent $20 million to increase his standing by two lousy percentage points.

If people have made up their minds about Tom Corbett—as I suspect many have—even the cockroaches won’t be able to save him.