Lyndon B. Johnson used a mushroom cloud. The first George Bush relied on Willie Horton. Now Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Maryland, is trying to attract voters with ... puppies.
He doesn't hate them, he says in his latest television advertisement - an arresting spot that might be unlike any political commercial you've ever seen.
Bright, fresh and almost irreverent in its disregard for the conventions of campaign advertising, the 30-second segment - which, like Steele's first two advertisements, makes no mention of his party affiliation - is part of a larger strategy aimed at presenting the candidate as a Washington outsider, a regular guy who would shake things up on Capitol Hill.
The spot, the second to feature an affable Steele evidently enjoying himself as he speaks directly to the camera, is one of the more unusual entrants in this year's pageant of campaign advertisements. Los Angeles-based branding consultant Joseph Hartnett, for one, is taken with it.
"Injecting humor is difficult, but I would say that he's done himself a real favor by presenting himself in this way," he said. "What he's talking about is himself as a brand."
Campaigns across the country are seeking new approaches to distinguish their candidates from the masses of office-seekers this fall. Historically, the impulse has led to spots ranging from the frightening - the 1964 Johnson advertisement that cut from the image of a little girl playing with a daisy to footage of a mushroom cloud - to the amusing: the 1980 Republican National Committee spot in which an actor portraying Democratic House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill insisted nothing was wrong as the car he was driving slowly ran out of gas.
Steele, who is running against Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and third-party candidate Kevin Zeese for the seat held by Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, appears to be heading in a different direction.
"They're trying to break through the clutter," said Morgan Felchner, editor of Campaigns & Elections magazine. "And they're creative, which is something you don't see a lot in political advertising."
Whether they will work is another question. Republican media consultant Michael J. Hudome, said their style suits Steele.
"When you're in the advertising business, you have to play to the strengths of your talent," said Hudome, who has offices in Bethesda and Washington. "And Michael Steele's strengths are he's a believable, sincere guy."
But Republican colleague Bruce Mentzer wonders how effective they will be in the face of the opposition. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has reserved $971,000 in television airtime in Maryland before the November election.
"They are going to come in and run really heavy to try to define him," said Mentzer, a media consultant based in Towson. "And while the ad's cute, and the puppy thing's cute, he's basically saying, `Don't listen to anything they say, none of it's true.' But when those ads start, and they're about serious issues, they're going to overtake the cuteness of the puppy ad pretty quickly."
Steele's opponents say his early advertisements are calculated to distract voters from the issues important in the election - and from Steele's ties to the White House.
"He's doing everything he can to divert attention from the fact that he was recruited by George [W.] Bush, and his campaign is funded by George [W.] Bush, and he agrees with George [W.] Bush on all the major issues of the day," Maryland Democratic Party spokesman Arthur Harris said.
Steele spokesman Doug Heye says the candidate is not trying to divert anyone's attention. He says Steele continues to engage in a "direct conversation" with Maryland voters.
"That's true whether he's at a campaign event, or in this case, in the commercial," Heye said. "Stressing the change that he will bring to Washington, the fundamental change to how Washington does business."
Produced by OnMessage Inc., the Alexandria, Va., firm that helped Republican challenger John Thune of South Dakota unseat Democratic Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in 2004, the latest spot eschews the grave voice-over and stock imagery traditional to campaign advertising for a direct appeal.
Entitled "Real Ideas for Change," it begins with Steele rapping on the television screen.
"Hey, me again, Michael Steele," he says, as a light-funk groove begins to percolate.
"Soon your TV will be jammed with negative ads from the Washington crowd," he warns. "Grainy pictures and spooky music saying" - his voice deepens into mock seriousness - "`Steele hates puppies.' "
The music stops.
"For the record," Steele says, "I love puppies."
Then he floats a pair of proposals: one to prohibit members of Congress from accepting gifts from lobbyists, and another to ban the practice of attaching last-minute amendments for pork-barrel projects to legislation.
"That's a start," Steele says. "Because Washington can't fix our problems until we fix theirs."