Ad blitz confronts voters in key states

Bush, Kerry campaigns start earlier than ever in delivering their pitches

March 22, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

TAMPA, Fla. -- Click on the tube in hundreds of places from Albuquerque, N.M., to Zanesville, Ohio, and it looks like October.

Parts of America are in the middle of a media storm, pounded by campaign commercials around the clock. Far earlier than ever before in a presidential race, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry are spending millions on television ads, targeting the areas where the election will likely be decided.

For most of the country, the back-and-forth of campaign attacks is largely receding into background noise on the nightly news. If either candidate visits, it is mainly to scoop up money for spending in the other America, where history's longest presidential contest is raging full force.

Voters in the targeted areas may grow weary over time, but for now they're surprisingly engaged in an election still 7 1/2 months away.

"Everybody is talking about this election, and feelings are running very strong on both sides," says Kathleen Beaton, 66, a retired elementary school teacher in suburban Tampa, Fla., a 2004 campaign hot spot. "The discussion is definitely about what's going on in the campaign."

The average viewer can hardly escape the ad war in places where it's raging. On WTSP, the CBS affiliate in St. Petersburg, Fla., the ads play out almost hourly.

Among the programs: Dr. Phil, Wheel of Fortune, The Price is Right, Star Search, 60 Minutes, Judging Amy, Joan of Arcadia, 48 Hours, The Guardian, JAG and The Late Show with David Letterman, plus a half-dozen local and national news shows, from 5 in the morning until 11 at night.

Exhibiting a grasp of the campaign shared by voters in other targeted areas, Beaton, a registered Republican, criticizes Bush's use of imagery from the Sept. 11 attacks. "I don't like anything that reminds me so much of that day," she says.

But she isn't completely sold on Kerry, either. "I don't know anybody who has a firm idea of Kerry. Maybe his wife," she says. "What's he for? He hasn't gotten his message out at all."

The swing states

Bush, with a record $110 million in the bank at the start of this month, and more rolling in daily, has been running ads on a few national cable channels. Kerry, scrambling to raise enough money to compete financially, has not.

But neither is wasting money on local ads in states that aren't expected to be close. That means the campaign will largely pass over the vast majority of Americans, including those in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, Dallas, San Francisco, Boston, Washington and Baltimore.

Instead, the real battle is in states both sides regard as pivotal, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Arizona, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Oregon, Iowa, Arkansas, Nevada, West Virginia, New Mexico, New Hampshire and Maine. All were closely contested in the 2000 presidential election.

So far, no place is getting more campaign ad dollars than Florida.

Like the ripening oranges hanging thick on the trees in back yards and commercial groves, this state is the candidates' juiciest target, the largest swing state this year. Its electoral votes decided the last election and, fattened by population growth, could do so again.

Karl Rove, the top Bush strategist, has said Florida will clearly be "ground zero" in 2004. A statewide poll this month showed Kerry leading Bush by 6 percentage points, raising the prospect of another tight finish in the state that Bush won by just 537 votes last time.

Bush chose Orlando, a major node on the Interstate 4 corridor that bisects the state and often decides elections in Florida, for his first full-fledged campaign rally over the weekend.

Meanwhile, the Tampa area, at the western end of I-4, is receiving the heaviest ad barrage in the country, according to Evan Tracey, whose company tracks political advertising.

Local television station ad logs underscore how crucial outside Democratic help has been in helping Kerry remain competitive on the air with Bush. In an effort to define the challenger in unflattering terms, Bush is barraging voters in every target state with ads that portray Kerry as a tax-raising, soft-on-defense Democrat.

Media Fund

On CBS' Channel 10 here, Bush has outspent Kerry by a ratio of nearly 5-to-1 -- $147,475 to $29,452 -- this month. But Democrats are effectively matching Bush, thanks to ads run by the Media Fund, an outside group headed by Clinton adviser Harold Ickes and funded by unlimited "soft-money" contributions.

The group has spent $124,842 on Channel 10 for anti-Bush ads that blast the president for "eroding the American dream" and say, "It's time to take our country back." Most air during programs that feature Bush commercials but lack a response ad from Kerry.

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