WASHINGTON - A GOP commercial that subtly flashes the word ''RATS'' across the screen is coming off the air amid allegations the Republicans were trying to send a subliminal message about Al Gore.
George W. Bush called the notion ''bizarre and weird,'' and his campaign made light of it all. The GOP admaker said he was just trying to make the spot visually interesting.
But Gore's campaign and experts in political advertising said the word choice - as an announcer was denouncing Gore's Medicare plan - could hardly have been an accident.
''I've never seen anything like it,'' the vice president said Tuesday in Middletown, Ohio. Running mate Joseph Lieberman called the ad ''very disappointing and strange.''
''I'm sure the public will be puzzled by it as we are and want an explanation,'' Lieberman said.
Bush noted that the word appears only fleetingly - for a tiny fraction of a second. Played at full speed, it's barely noticeable, particularly if the viewer isn't looking for the word.
''One frame out of 900 hardly in my judgment makes a conspiracy,'' Bush said Tuesday in Orlando, Fla. ''I am convinced this is not intentional. You don't need to play, you know, cute politics.''
Gore aides reveled in the story, which they leaked to the press after being alerted by a careful viewer in Seattle.
''Ad graphics don't pop up out of thin air. Someone sits down at a computer and creates them,'' said Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway.
The ad, which has been running in several states for more than two weeks, touts Bush's plan for adding prescription drugs to Medicare, arguing that senior citizens will have more control over their health care under Bush's proposal. Gore's plan, the ad says, will be run by bureaucrats.
Words flash on the screen to echo the announcer's message: ''The Gore prescription plan: Bureaucrats decide.''
But just as the announcer says ''bureaucrats decide,'' the word ''RATS,'' in large, white capital letters, fills the black screen.
Alex Castellanos, who made the ad for the Republican National Committee, said he flashed the letters - the tail end of ''bureaucrats'' - so the ad would look more visually interesting and it was just a coincidence it came out ''rats.''
''It's a visual drumbeat,'' he said. ''People get bored watching TV. You're trying to get them interested and involved.''
White House spokesman Jake Siewert said President Clinton had not seen the ad but was looking forward to it. ''I'll leave it to you to judge whether that is an accident or a dirty trick,'' he said.
Outside analysts said it they found it hard to believe the word was not deliberately placed.
''The word 'rats' is so carefully superimposed. It's not like it just randomly appears on the screen,'' said Darrell West, an expert on political advertising at Brown University.
''It's cheap and manipulative. It certainly takes the level of political discourse down several notches,'' said Loyal Rue, who studies political deception at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.
Bush made it clear he does not endorse subliminal messages. The term itself gave him trouble all day, repeatedly coming out as ''subliminable.''
''To put people's minds at ease I will say loud and clear: This kind of practice is not acceptable,'' he said.
The ad has run for more than two weeks, and Bush's communications director, Karen Hughes, said it was being replaced Tuesday as scheduled. The RNC already has spent some $2.5 million to air it in 33 markets. One Democratic official said the Gore campaign, unimpressed with the ad's effectiveness, waited to leak the story until the ad was about to come off the air.
Hughes made light of the question of a subliminal message, saying the Bush campaign ''was not trying to get the rat vote.'' She greeted reporters on the plane in Orlando with a platter of cheese and snacks.
She also pointed out a second word that flashes by in big letters - ''wit,'' she said, while the regular message says ''Interferes with doctors.'' ''I can assure you that we are not spending Republican ad money to call Al Gore a wit,'' she said. The letters actually continue, spelling out the full word ''with.''
In 1974, the Federal Communications Commission adopted a policy saying that subliminal advertising was contrary to the public interest. If the FCC received a complaint, it would investigate broadcasters who aired the ad, but no complaints have been received about this ad, officials said.
Even if it was intentional, subliminal messages aren't necessarily effective, said Bill Benoit, who studies political advertising at the University of Missouri.
''There's no conclusive evidence that it works,'' he said. ''Of course, that doesn't stop advertisers.''