WASHINGTON – Howard Dean (search) pokes fun at himself on late-night comedy shows and Wesley Clark endures grilling by veteran television reporters. John Edwards (search) does satellite interviews beamed to other states and Joe Lieberman (search) calls into local radio shows.
Coming off of back-to-back wins, John Kerry (search) graces newspaper front pages and magazine covers.
It's all free exposure that's even more valuable to the Democratic presidential candidates now that the campaign for the White House has become national.
"News media coverage is everything right now," said Steve Murphy, who ran Dick Gephardt's now-abandoned campaign. "Voters are getting far more information from the news media than they get from the ads."
Thirty-second commercials with perky pictures and catchy slogans — "paid media" — still are a priority. But with shorter campaign windows and tighter advertising budgets, the candidates also are trying to get as much "free media" as possible to reach voters quickly and cheaply.
Starting Tuesday, 19 states will hold primaries or caucuses in February. Then comes Super Tuesday on March 2 when delegates in 12 states, including big prizes California, New York and Ohio, will be up for grabs.
High-priced ad wars in Iowa and New Hampshire — where candidates pumped about $20 million combined into television commercials — have put dents into once-flush campaign coffers, prompting candidates to use other ways to get out their messages, particularly in the local media.
"They can't be in every state every day. They're going to have to use the media as their surrogate," said Tom McPhail, a University of Missouri political communication professor.
So, as candidates crisscross the country, campaigns regularly feed local stations audio and video sound bites. They send interviews with the candidates over satellites for local broadcasters in dozens of states to use easily. They book appearances on network morning shows — "Today," "Good Morning America" and "The Early Show" — and 24-hour cable news channels. And they stage flag-adorned made-for-TV events and photo ops on airport tarmacs.
Still, political analysts say, candidates can't rely on media coverage alone to get their messages across to voters because they have no control over what sound bites or photos are used. Sometimes the coverage is bad. Clips of Dean's thundering concession speech following Iowa's caucuses were replayed hundreds of times.
No matter how much media coverage a candidate gets, the analysts say, TV ads remain important because they allow candidates to direct precise messages toward specific constituencies.
Clark, a retired Army general, is relying on ads more than his rivals mainly because, unlike them, he's got the money because he didn't spend in Iowa. He's pumping more than $1 million into TV ads in eight states this week, far more than any other candidate. Still, he's on news programs every chance he gets.
For Kerry, a crush of favorable media coverage was automatic because of his wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. The Massachusetts senator has been on the front pages of major newspapers nationwide and on the cover of Newsweek with the headline "Bring It On!"
To complement the headlines, Kerry is spending at least $750,000 on TV ads in South Carolina, Arizona, New Mexico, North Dakota, Delaware, Missouri and Oklahoma in the days leading to Tuesday's voting there.
Edwards is matching Kerry's spending in South Carolina, New Mexico and Missouri and running ads at lower levels in Oklahoma. He also is doing dozens of satellite interviews and radio call-ins nearly every day, which allows him to get into news segments in important states that may otherwise ignore him that day because he's campaigning elsewhere.
"The free media is giving Kerry and Edwards a hand and they may not have to do as much paid advertising," said Costas Panagopoulos, executive director of the political campaign management program at New York University. But for cash-strapped candidates Dean and Lieberman, he said, free media is most important because "it's all they've got."
Dean is not running ads so far in any state with a contest in February and is struggling financially after spending at least $6 million on commercials in Iowa and New Hampshire and at least $3 million in other states in a TV ad campaign that started last summer.
Instead, he conducted at least four hours of satellite interviews with TV stations in 12 upcoming primary states, did a skit with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" last week and made the rounds on network morning shows, among other things.
Dean also gained headlines, but they were hardly good for the campaign — a second-place showing in New Hampshire, a staff shake-up that led to the departure of campaign manager Joe Trippi and a financial crunch that cut off staff salaries.
Lieberman is struggling after his fifth-place finish in New Hampshire. He is running fewer commercials in four states and is calling local radio stations in several states to stay in the mix.