Interest Groups Rely More on Local Media

When President Bush visits Cincinnati on Monday, a liberal interest group will air a radio commercial that says "Ohio's economy was humming along" before Bush took office.

During former President Clinton's appearance Sunday on "60 Minutes," a conservative outfit aired a TV ad that implies support of Bush and says "winning the war on terror demands a president who is willing to fight it."

Interest groups are taking a more targeted approach to political advertising than in the past, as they count on local media outlets to help spread their message to voters already inundated by campaign commercials.

"The closer you bring a message to individual voters, the more likely they'll be to pay attention to it," said Costas Panagopoulos, a New York University politics professor who said tailored media strategies are smart in a year of unprecedented political advertising.

Liberal interest groups have spent more than $40 million since March on political ads benefiting Democratic presidential challenger John Kerry. Conservative groups supportive of Bush have spent a fraction of that amount.

The Media Fund (search), a Democratic-leaning group that has spent $25 million recently switched tactics from saturating the TV airwaves in 17 battleground states to birddogging Bush with newspaper and radio ads on his trips outside Washington.

When the president visited Nevada on Friday, a Media Fund radio ad criticized him for supporting the creation of a high-level nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain. When he visits Ohio on Monday, newspaper and radio ads will challenge him on the economy in a state that has lost more than 190,000 manufacturing jobs since he took office in January 2001.

"With a relatively modest investment, you get a big bang for your buck by piggybacking on a presidential visit," said Erik Smith, the Media Fund's executive director.

The goal is to offset the flood of positive local news coverage of a presidential candidate's visit and to spread the opposing point of view. But there can be drawbacks.

The coverage of a candidate can be so dense that other messages have difficulty breaking through and ads sometimes have to be put together quickly because some candidate trips are planned only a few days in advance.

Citizens United — a conservative interest group headed by one of Clinton's harshest critics, former Republican congressional aide David Bossie — ran a TV ad in Washington, New York and other media markets as the former president discusses his memoirs Sunday night on CBS' "60 Minutes."

"Here's what you might miss in Bill Clinton's new book," the ad says, before listing various terrorist attacks executed under his tenure. "So who is responsible for leaving us vulnerable to terrorists? You don't need Clinton's book to know winning the war on terror demands a president who is willing to fight it."

An affiliate of (search), a liberal interest group, used the same approach in January when it aired a commercial assailing Bush on the deficit in the days surrounding his State of the Union address.

Other interest groups have moved to targeted advertising as well, although to a lesser degree.

The Sierra Club (search) ran newspaper ads criticizing Bush's environmental record when he visited Maine on Earth Day in April and Louisiana in May. Also in May, NARAL Pro-Choice America targeted the president's visit to Wisconsin with a commercial criticizing one of his adviser's comments about abortion.

Bush's re-election campaign also has used the technique against Kerry. In March, when the Democrat visited veteran-rich West Virginia, the GOP campaign rolled out a television commercial labeling Kerry as "wrong on defense."

Some groups, like Citizens United, are running TV ads to coincide with specific televised events, such as Clinton's interview, or are tailoring commercials to piggyback on issues covered by the local media.

Meanwhile, the League of Conservation Voters says it will continue to criticize Bush's positions on local issues by advertising in select media markets, even when he's not there, in hopes of influencing the coverage.

The group tested its approch with ads in Tampa and Orlando assailing Bush for his position on oil drilling off Florida's coast. "The point was to drive media coverage — and it worked," said Mark Longabaugh, the group's political director.