WASHINGTON – Using humor, attitude and the occasional put-down, some presidential candidates are filling the airwaves with ads to stir activists and create an early, positive brand for their campaign.
Mitt Romney has assembled a narrative with nearly $4 million in ads this year that have helped propel him from near obscurity to the top of GOP public opinion polls in two early nominating states, Iowa and New Hampshire.
Democrat Bill Richardson, perhaps drawing confidence from Romney's experience, is buying significant advertising time in those states. He is running ads that spoof his second-tier status in the field despite a resume with extensive government experience. His poll numbers also have improved.
Those ads, as well as smaller buys of air time by Democrats Christopher Dodd and John Edwards, point up the intensity of the early stages of the 2008 race. They also represent a more sophisticated and integrated approach to underdog campaigning than in past elections.
Romney, Dodd and Edwards have shown an ability to react to news events, linking their ads to legislative action in Washington on Iraq or on immigration. Edwards has tied his commercials to his Internet site, calling on viewers to create their own video responses to his anti-war message.
The current reliance on advertising also sends an indisputable message — the 30-second television commercial remains the warhorse of political campaigns.
"All the talk about the Internet and YouTube, the (candidates) who are performing best in the polls are the ones putting their money on old fashioned television spots," said Evan Tracey, chief operating officer at TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group, a company that tracks political advertising.
Despite an array of new Internet technology to communicate with supporters, galvanize activist and tap contributors, one of the chief reasons campaigns raise money is to pay for television.
"It's still the — I wouldn't say the 800-pound gorilla — but how about 650 pound?" said Alex Castellanos, Romney's top media adviser. "It's still the way you talk to everybody. That does not mean now that it's enough. You certainly have other channels of communication to deliver a message. But it does not make any of the old ones any less powerful."
Leading candidates such as Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama and Republicans John McCain and Rudy Giuliani have strong name identification and have not had to use television commercials to introduce themselves to potential voters. Their ad campaigns probably will begin in earnest in September.
For Romney, the task has been different. He had the money — he raised $20 million in the first three months of the year — but not the name recognition. In addition, he had been the Republican governor of liberal Massachusetts and conservatives were not prepared to embrace him with open arms.
Because he was an unknown, "introducing Mitt Romney was a challenge," Castellanos said. "But it was also our greatest opportunity to tell people who this guy is and what he cares about."
Romney spent $2 million in the first three months of the campaign on introductory ads that stressed his biography. This month, he ramped up his advertising, spending about the same amount on ads in New Hampshire, Iowa and on national cable, especially Fox News, whose audience tends to be more conservative. He also chose to be on the air in May, a sweeps month when networks aim to attract most of their viewers.
He capitalized on the Senate immigration debate, injecting a new commercial that denounced "amnesty" for illegal immigrants. Last week, he confronted the Massachusetts albatross with an ad that described his home state as "the most liberal state in the country."
"In the toughest place," the ad concludes, "Mitt Romney's done the toughest things."
On the Democratic front, Richardson appears to have made the most of his campaign ads. They have stressed his experience as a member of Congress, a Cabinet secretary, a U.N. ambassador and now a governor. He has moved up in some polls into fourth position behind Clinton, Obama and Edwards.
Richardson's ads, a two-part series, portray him as an applicant pitching his experience to an indifferent job interviewer. In one ad, his interviewer runs through his credentials, stops, takes a bite from a sandwich, and asks "So, what makes you think you can be president?"
Dodd has run ads in both Iowa and New Hampshire calling on Clinton and Obama to support cutting off money for the war in Iraq. After both senators voted with Dodd to advance the bill, Dodd aired a commercial gloating: "It worked. Now Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have changed their positions to follow Chris Dodd."
Dante Scala, a political scientist at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., said, "I see Richardson and Dodd making some space for themselves in the race and I think the ads have been a part of that."
Edwards has not had to spend too much money on ads. The former Democratic vice presidential nominee is ahead of Obama and Clinton in Iowa polls and is a strong contender to repeat his first place finish in South Carolina in 2004.
He has used the small ad buys to try to distinguish himself as an anti-war candidate and to prod his opponents who are in the Senate to stand up to President Bush.
"Edwards' strategy is to become part of the dialogue," said Tracey, the ad tracker. "He's doing very well in Iowa. He's essentially protecting a lead there."