DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Smiling and waving, John Edwards (search) ambled down his campaign plane stairs, hopped onto a small riser, grabbed a megaphone and implored a couple hundred people in an airport hangar to vote before Nov. 2.
Next, the Democratic vice presidential nominee patted backs, clasped hands and thanked squealing fans. Then, he was off.
The entire event lasted 10 minutes or so — just long enough for local TV cameras and newspaper photographers to capture the moment.
With only two weeks to go before the election and the race extraordinarily close, both campaigns are seizing every opportunity to get their messages out — and faces in — local media in crucial states.
Advertising is at a fever pitch, with Bush, Democratic challenger John Kerry (search) and their political parties poised to spend about $35 million on ads this week to deluge competitive states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Millions more will come from outside liberal and conservative groups.
At the same time, both sides are facing tighter budgets, limited amounts of available airtime at TV stations, a ticking clock and the challenge of cutting through the cacophony of campaign commercials on the airwaves.
Voters get most of their campaign news from their hometown newspapers and local TV stations. It's a fact that both campaign have recognized throughout the year. They have aggressive regional press operations at their headquarters and advance teams at campaign events that have made driving local coverage a priority.
Republican and Democratic strategists alike claim that news coverage has a larger impact on the race than TV ads at the close of a presidential campaign.
"By now, voters have been bombarded by advertisements for months and months, harassed even, and so what they see from the candidates themselves now is much more important," said Jim Jordan, a Democratic consultant who is Kerry's former campaign manager.
Tony Fabrizio, a Republican consultant, called it "pretty smart" to stage campaign events to maximize media coverage, like airport tarmac appearances before larger events. "It's getting two bites out of the apple in the same media market," he said. "That's huge."
So, there no doubt will be homestretch bus tours with stops at local attractions — a virtual campaign commercial on wheels. Community newspapers and local network affiliates are sure to get coveted one-on-one interviews with the candidates. And, backdrops will be picture-perfect at campaign events.
For the Republican ticket, it's easier to get so-called "free media." Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have got the power of the incumbency behind them, making headlines simply because of who they are.
Bush was flying to New Jersey on Monday to deliver what aides called a major address on terrorism in a state that lost nearly 700 residents in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center in New York.
Democrat Al Gore won New Jersey in 2000 by double digits. But recent polls show the race there tight, and Republicans are considering making a serious play for the state by advertising in the ultra-expensive New York City media market, which reaches deep into New Jersey.
Bush's campaign is not on the air there now. But by scheduling the speech in Marlton, N.J., the campaign ensured that the president will get priceless exposure for several days this week across the state, as well as in neighboring Philadelphia, at a critical time in the race — and in a state they may want to put in play without spending serious money on ads.
Unlike their opponents, Kerry and Edwards have to work a bit harder for coverage — especially in states where they have become weekly visitors.
On a tour of rural Ohio on Saturday, Kerry stopped by a neighborhood pumpkin patch, a photo-op on a crisp autumn day. Later, there was another when the Democrat sipped cider in a rocking chair on a front porch with former astronaut and senator John Glenn. Kerry also granted interviews with Ohio-based reporters at almost every stop.
Meanwhile, in Florida, running mate Edwards held the brief but well-planned — event at the Daytona Beach airport. Penned in a hangar by metal barricades, the crowd waved Kerry-Edwards signs and chanted the name of the No. 2 on the ticket. Campaign banners hung on the hangar walls.
Edwards spoke with his plane — emblazoned with the ticket's surnames — in the background and then shook hands with supporters.
All the while, his aides made sure hometown reporters had prime spots and shifted local TV camera crews up close to get the best shots for broadcast Saturday night and Sunday morning — well before the first event of the day.