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Forget the platform, attack the adversary

Campaigns in the local and regional races are geared to stoking emotions rather than concentrating on what the candidates have to offer voters

In the past few weeks, candidates from the two major political forces have avoided talking about what ideas they are offering voters and have instead opted to strike the emotional chords of supporters by banging away at their opponents, even to the point of ridiculing them ? a guaranteed way to grab headlines.

Since the May 7 launch start of the campaign ? which experts concur has been one of the most lukewarm in recent years ? there has been only one occasion when Popular Party supporters jumped to their feet and enthusiastically applauded their candidate. It occurred in Zaragoza when their leader Mariano Rajoy said: "Zapatero says he didn't make any cuts. Then who froze the pensions? Who cut the salaries of public workers? Who cut the 400 euro [across-the-board rebate in income tax]? Who took away the deduction for the purchase of the new home? Who took away the baby bond, raised power rates and VAT; and hiked taxes?" A fired-up PP audience shouted back in unison: "Zapatero!"

In the same city but at a different rally, the prime minister was also able to get his supporters worked up by mentioning controversial comments made by his predecessor José María Aznar before slamming the conservatives' platform this time around. Socialist supporters chanted back: "Give them hell! Give them hell!"

The two episodes are good examples of how this year's campaigning has been geared more to attacking opponents rather than showing what the parties have to offer. "Voters go to political rallies to get their emotions charged and a good candidate knows how to tap into those emotions," says Luis Arroyo, a consultant who has worked on various Socialist campaigns.

"In this context, nothing works with such intensity as attacking an opponent because we're talking about evoking passions. Campaign platforms do not generate emotions, and for this reason, that is why it is better not to bring them up at these type of rallies," he adds.

Arroyo doesn't entirely rule out the importance of the party platforms, saying that "they are necessary to jumpstart any campaign by sealing a commitment with voters." However in a municipal race, he maintains, the candidates know that if they talk about reconstructing a bridge in a town or promise to build an incinerator it won't make it on the evening news.

As Eduardo Vázquez, director of the Arena Quantum, points out, all the electoral platforms can been downloaded from the internet.

A stab by an adversary ? such as the one vented by Zapatero when he compared the PP with the True Finns, "the most sinister ultra-right party in Europe" ? is likely better to play well with voters and the media.

Zapatero continues to remind supporters at rallies that the real estate bust and the five million unemployed are the products of the previous Aznar government's policies.

Most experts agree that the PP has fallen back on its strategy of already acting as a winner when it comes to campaigning. Felipe González barely mentioned Aznar when they were both fighting for La Moncloa in 1993; in 2004, Aznar didn't stop attacking Zapatero. Rajoy is now also badgering Zapatero.

However, the PP leader avoids getting too personal with the candidates from the opposition but allows his party's youth wing Nuevas Generaciones to do the dirty work. On one occasion, a Nuevas Generaciones leader called Socialist Tomás Gómez, who is running for regional premier in Madrid, "a compulsive liar."

For their part, the Socialists sought to capitalize on statements made last week by the PP mayoral candidate in Barcelona, who said that immigrants bring to Spain diseases that have already been eradicated. On Sunday at a rally in Zaragoza, Zapatero said: "All that's left for the PP to say now is that they smell bad." The strategies the parties have been using are essentially the same as the ploy used by Don Simón, the fruit juice producer, which in 1998 captured more than 10 percent of the market through a successful advertising campaign in which they claimed that their US competitor Minute Maid used concentrates to make its juice while the Spanish company used fresh-squeezed oranges.

But not all campaigns have been fair and some have even broken the law. About a week ago, the PP put up a huge wall poster in various Madrid Metro stations showing Zapatero and Gómez laughing against a red background with the words "5 million unemployed" written in large white letters.

The Socialists complained to the Central Electoral Board that the signs were dishonest and misleading because they used the Socialist Party's colors and did not state who had paid for them, as required by law. The board ruled that no campaign signs can be put up anonymously. Gómez, for his part, said that he was outraged by the PP's "unscrupulous" campaign. "This is serious because they are using the intolerable situation and misery those five million people are experiencing for their own purposes," he said.