Responding rapidly to a 15-state advertising campaign by the Democrats, the Republican Party unveiled its first national commercial yesterday, a television spot detailing Texas Gov. George W. Bush's proposals for overhauling Social Security. It will begin running tomorrow in 17 states, from New England to the Pacific Northwest.
The swiftness with which the Republican National Committee is taking to the airwaves is a marked departure from four years ago, when the Democratic Party began running issue advertisements on behalf of President Clinton weeks before the cash-strapped Republicans could start commercials for their presidential nominee, former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas.
Republicans and Democrats say this first volley of spots establishes the pace for a highly expensive parry-and-thrust on the air that is likely to continue almost uninterrupted until Election Day.
The Republican commercial is being paid for with a mixture of hard money, raised under federal limits, and soft money, the unrestricted contributions made to political parties by corporations, unions and wealthy individuals. The Democrats' spot, which went out Thursday to advertise Vice President Al Gore's support for expanding Medicare benefits to cover prescription drugs, is being paid for in the same manner.
The Republican commercial runs 60 seconds and takes on a more complicated issue. It is one that Bush and Gore have sparred over in recent weeks: how to ensure the federal retirement-benefits system does not go bankrupt as vast numbers of aging baby boomers move closer to eligibility for retirement checks.
In the commercial, produced by Alex Castellanos, a veteran Republican media consultant, an announcer explains Bush's approach: "The Bush plan guarantees everyone at or near retirement every dollar of their benefits. You paid into it, it's your money and it will be there for you.
And the Bush plan gives younger workers a choice to invest a small part of their Social Security in sound investments they control, for higher returns."
Gore immediately denounced the proposal as dangerous, contending that taxpayers would be vulnerable to losing their retirement savings in fraudulent and foolhardy investments.
Some Republican strategists close to Bush acknowledged that the Republican National Committee spot addressed a much more politically treacherous issue than the one the Democrats chose for their first commercial for Gore. That, they said, was part of the point.
"It's as much a spot about leadership as it is about Social Security," asserted a Bush adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "What people like most is someone who seems to have the courage to do what's right."
Democratic officials, however, said they thought there was a lot in the spot that would work against Bush.
It begins, they point out, with the announcer noting, "Our nation is at peace and more prosperous than ever."