Here comes the sprint.
GOP presidential front-runner George W. Bush aimed five new television commercials at Iowa and New Hampshire this week, and new ads were also broadcast by Democrats Bill Bradley and Vice President Al Gore, and Republicans Steve Forbes and John McCain. It is only the trickle before the deluge, campaign consultants say.
“The minute the last college bowl game ends, look out,” said Dan Schnur, communications director for Sen. McCain of Arizona.
While a few ads will air on national cable stations, the bulk will run, repeatedly, in the early caucus and primary states.
“It’s voting time in New Hampshire and Iowa,” said Texas Gov. Bush’s media consultant, Mark McKinnon. “Voters are really focusing now on the choices, and so we want to be out there making clear what choice we offer.”
McCain spokesman Howard Opinsky said: “If you’re fortunate enough to live in one of those early primary states, you’ll see more ads than you probably care to see. If you don’t, you won’t see any at all. Californians will probably start to see a lot of ads later in February if there’s still a contest.”
Iowa holds its caucuses Jan. 24 and the New Hampshire primary is Feb. 1. McCain is skipping Iowa but running ads in South Carolina, where a primary will be held Feb. 18, and in Michigan, with a Feb. 22 primary. California and several other states are slated for March 7.
Experts say a viewer must see an ad seven to 10 times for the message to sink in. The new commercials are largely “issue” pieces, offering glimpses of candidates’ positions on Medicare, Social Security, taxes and education. In a year considered a tough sell because of a cynical electorate, most of the ads feature upbeat soundtracks, campaign trail handshakes and smiles, and lots of footage of candidates looking squarely at the camera or answering questions at a public event.
“It’s not so much a technique as letting the advertising get out of the way to show the real Bill Bradley,” said Kristen Ludecke, campaign spokeswoman for the former New Jersey senator.
One exception is three spots by Forbes, which feature grim music, angry or plaintive senior citizens, taxpayers, unemployed workers and even a sad boy.
“We have to be a little bit different because we’re the challenger,” said Forbes spokesman Keith Appell. “We have to do something that’s going to grab people’s attention.”
In keeping with the cordial tone of the campaign season--so far--there are no slashing attacks in the latest crop of commercials.
“We haven’t refrained from vigorous debate, and we’ll continue to use all the venues available,” said Gore spokesman Chris Lehane. “But we draw a clear distinction between personal attacks and differences on the issues.”
All the campaigns have run some ads in recent months. Federal law limits campaign spending to slightly more than $2 million for Iowa and $600,000 to $1 million for New Hampshire, depending on how loopholes are interpreted. Lehane joked, “I’ll make a bold prediction that we’ll all spend right up to the cap.”
In a new twist, Bush is running banner ads on America Online, using customized computer profiles to pipe them to sites likely to be visited by Republican and independent voters in New Hampshire and Iowa. Viewers are directed to an interactive “tax calculator” that tells them how much money they might save under Bush’s proposed tax cuts.
McCain, who, even with an unexpected surge in fund-raising, still has less than a quarter of what Bush and Forbes have at their disposal, is using less expensive radio spots, and emphasizing in news releases that he will continue to campaign heavily in person.
“While some campaigns have worked incessantly to emphasize their multimillion-dollar budgets and the latest techniques in political advertising and editing, McCain has continued his tireless grass-roots efforts,” said a release Wednesday.
Forbes is spending heavily in Iowa, where he has fared better in polls than in New Hampshire. But Appell said Forbes would advertise heavily in New Hampshire too. Last week, Bradley paid for 20 minutes of footage from a Sioux City town meeting on Iowa cable television. He has already outspent Gore 2 to 1 in New Hampshire, and bought at least $600,000 worth of Iowa ad time for January.
Other campaigns are doing last-minute shopping, predicting that buys of prized 30- and 60-second slots during evening newscasts and other popular programs will soar in coming weeks.