WASHINGTON – Tune in to a NASCAR (search) race on Fox Sports Net sometime soon, and you'll see a political ad praising President Bush. Same for the Golf Channel or Dennis Miller's new talk show on CNBC.
The first advertising of Bush's re-election campaign begins Thursday, and the multimillion-dollar buy, the cable stations chosen for the spots and the type of ad provide a window on his spring strategy: appeal to the conservative base.
The campaign also looks to make inroads with Hispanics, the nation's fastest growing minority group.
Bush's approval ratings have dropped steeply after months of criticism by Democrats out to take his job. Campaign officials are directing his ads on national cable channels to energize core supporters and, perhaps, boost his national poll numbers.
At least $4.5 million worth of airtime has been bought on CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and other networks for ads over three weeks. Political analysts say it's the first significant advertising buy on national cable stations by a presidential campaign.
About half the buy so far is for airtime on Fox News Channel, which Bush opponents contend reports most favorably on the GOP among the 24-hour news networks, and Fox Sports Net, mostly during NASCAR programs. The sport is watched heavily by white males, many with Southern or rural roots.
The campaign also has indicated to networks that it will place ads on ESPN, watched mainly by 18- to -34-year-old men, and the Golf Channel, where the average viewers are affluent, 45-year-old males. It also has checked rates on others, including Home and Garden, favored by older, wealthier women, and the History Channel, also popular among men.
Political analysts say advertising through cable TV allows the campaign to target its advertising to specific constituencies and be on the air everywhere, including in states that may not be in play in the election.
"It's a fairly efficient way to engage voters without having to cherry-pick states," said Evan Tracey, president of TNS Media Intelligence/Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks ad spending.
Bush-Cheney advisers say polling shows that Republicans watch less broadcast TV than Democrats, which suggests that the best way to reach the GOP base is to target cable networks with high Republican viewership.
The ads' principal message will be about Bush's "steady leadership in changing and dangerous times." The Bush-Cheney campaign started buying airtime Friday with local broadcast affiliates in at least 50 media markets in 17 states that were competitive in 2000.
The campaign also has made courting Hispanics a major part of its ad strategy. Ads will start next week on Spanish-language networks Univision and Telemundo in markets in New Mexico, Florida, Nevada and Arizona, advisers say.
"President Bush feels that it's very important to reach out to citizens throughout this country who may not have English as their native tongue," said Scott Stanzel, a campaign spokesman. "Our media and advertising campaign will reflect that effort."
Hispanics traditionally have favored the Democratic Party in presidential elections, but support has dropped in recent years. In 1996, 72 percent of Hispanics voted to re-elect President Clinton, versus just 21 percent for Republican Bob Dole. Four years later, Democrat Al Gore won 62 percent of the Hispanic vote compared to 35 percent for Bush.
States with large Hispanic populations, such as Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Florida, were competitive in 2000, with contests being decided by 6 percentage points or fewer. They are considered in play again in 2004.
"If the Republicans take 5 (percent) to 10 percent of the Hispanic vote, they're going to kill the Democrats in those key states," said Joe Velasquez, a Democratic consultant with Moving America Forward, a group trying to mobilize Hispanic voters.
The number of Hispanics in America has more than doubled in the past decade to 35 million, and about 9 million are expected to be registered to vote by November.
As the group has grown, presidential candidates have stepped up efforts to court it using advertising.
In 1996, Clinton and the Democratic Party spent about $1.1 million on such TV ads. Four years later, Bush and the Republican Party poured in an estimated $2.3 million, outspending Gore and the Democratic Party more than 2-to-1, according to the Wisconsin Advertising Project, which tracks ad spending.