COLUMBUS, Ohio - The sun is not yet up, but on TV, the campaign is wide awake.
Swift boat veterans supporting President Bush are questioning John Kerry's Vietnam War record, staring sternly into the camera and declaring, "John Kerry cannot be trusted." A group opposing Bush is depicting failed foreign and domestic policies as derailed train cars, intoning: "Vote like your child's life depends on it. It does."
There is one car on the rush-hour traffic cam, and someone on the Channel 4 weather team, not yet fully conscious, puts the temperature at 475 degrees. However, during the 5 a.m. newscast Thursday, the political ads are blaring like an alarm.
It is slightly unnerving, watching 19 straight hours of TV in a swing state. The ads, combined with the local programming, leave no shortage of things to fear. There are wolves in the woods representing terrorists and images of Americans grieving for soldiers slain in Iraq. Ohioans who haven't tuned out all this advertising - an unscientific count tallied more than 80 spots across the three major network affiliates on one day - can just flip on the TV to see the campaigns battle over unemployment, health care, taxes.
However, in the countdown to Tuesday's election, the drumbeat is loudest on terrorism.
This is how it begins:
Ohioans wake up to a local NBC news segment about an emergency preparedness drill. A man, pretending to be stricken by an unknown agent, lies on the asphalt, clutches his chest and says, "I can't feel my heart." Somebody bends over and spits, waiting for rescue. An Ohio emergency worker declares: "Unfortunately, those things we never used to think about, we need to think about every day. We didn't think before 9/11 terrorists could take an airplane and ram it into buildings."
Soon after, a twig snaps and a wolf appears in the wilderness. A voiceover intones: "Weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm." The Bush campaign ad, accusing the Massachusetts senator of cutting the intelligence budget, ends with six wolves resting in a clearing and then suddenly rushing toward the camera.
Against this backdrop, everything seems more shrill - even an ad for a cold medicine, where a man with a sore throat sits on a crowded airplane while red shock waves pulsate from his throat - feels less innocent with the war so prevalent in the ads surrounding it.
Appeals to women
Once everyone's off to work, things lighten up a bit. On Live With Regis and Kelly, after the hosts interview Desperate Housewives actress Eva Longoria, the political ads seek out housewives of their own with softer messages.
"Envision a country led by hope, not fear," coos an ad from the pro-Kerry Media Fund, cutting to a shot of a woman with a baby. "They can see it. Can you?"
But how can they, when there's so much else to worry about?
During the 9 a.m. time slot, one local station blasts a test of its Emergency Alert System played out against a still photo of the Columbus skyline.
There's no relief when the Democratic National Committee commercial comes on a few minutes later, aiming at Bush's ability to lead: "Over a thousand soldiers have died in a war poorly planned, and no one can tell him he's wrong." Cut to the half-smirking president. The ad ends with Kerry, his arm slicing across a cloudy sky.
The Bush campaign tries to delve into the emotional trauma behind the fear a few minutes later with a shot of Ashley Faulkner, whose mother was killed on Sept. 11. The Ohio teenager, in an ad by the pro-Bush Progress for America, had "closed up emotionally" until Bush hugged her at a rally, according to the ad, which shows Bush and Ashley in a tearful embrace. Ashley's testimonial: "He's the most powerful man in the world, and all he wants to do is make sure I'm safe, that I'm OK."
The morning shows have already have infused non-terrorism subjects with dread, like peanut allergies and kitchen germs, but on The View, actress Helen Hunt tries to bring the matter back to politics. She tells the hosts it's "sexy" when a woman votes for a candidate her father, husband or boyfriend might not like.
Before lunch, on another channel, a commercial break:
"No one gets a veto over our security - no one," Kerry booms in a clip from a stop in Ohio, part of an ad his campaign created after the charge that he'd require a "global test" before going to war. "We're gonna hunt down the terrorists. We will kill them."
If the macho appeal works, Bush's surrogates have produced ads that attempt to defuse it. The National Rifle Association later airs a spot closing with the image of a poodle in a Kerry sweater.
When the soap operas come on, the political ads nearly disappear entirely.
The short lull ends
It's serene for a few hours, but it ends during Montel, when the Bush campaign's wolf ad comes back on. The spot is especially hard to ignore this time because, coincidentally, the talk show is about real-life survival stories and a rescued hiker who was chased by wolves.