Presidential Ad Wars Heat Up

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 20, 2007

One day after Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton unveiled an ambitious health-care plan, an image of her -- surrounded by children and cradling a baby -- flickered across television screens Tuesday in Iowa and New Hampshire.

"She changed our way of thinking when she introduced universal health care to America," the ad's narrator says. "She changed the lives of 6 million kids when she championed the bill that gave them health insurance. And she changed future generations by pushing the drug companies to lower the cost of vaccinations."

The Democratic presidential hopeful was hardly the first to "introduce" the goal of universal care, and the plan she announced as first lady in 1993 crashed and burned. While she was an advocate for children's health and vaccine measures during her husband's administration, it was Congress that passed both bills.

Still, the ad is designed to be reassuring about her new proposal -- "lets you keep your coverage if you like it" -- and includes what has emerged as her tag line: "If you're ready for change, she's ready to lead."

After a long stretch in which only three of the presidential contenders have spent serious money on the airwaves, the ad wars began to heat up this week. Two leading Republican candidates have largely limited themselves to online advertising, with former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani slamming Clinton in Web spots and former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) assailing "Hillarycare" in a video posted yesterday.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has far outpaced the other candidates in ad spending, devoting $6 million to television spots, more than triple the $1.9 million spent by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D). In Iowa, said Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, the candidates have "blown past the historic totals of the last election" much earlier.

Among other Democrats, according to Tracey's group, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) has spent $1.3 million; Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.), $863,000; Clinton (N.Y.), $475,000; and former senator John Edwards (N.C.), $385,000.

Romney was not as well known as competitors such as Giuliani and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) when he launched his candidacy, so "we had to go into a very aggressive introductory stage, especially since he's running against candidates with universal name identification," spokesman Kevin Madden said. The more the Romney camp advertised in Iowa and New Hampshire, "the better we did in those early states," Madden said, adding that the media blitz has now expanded to South Carolina and Florida.

The spots cast Romney as a take-charge businessman, and at one point he is pictured jogging across the screen. One calls him "the innovator who created and revolutionized American businesses, turned around major companies. Took on the bankrupt Olympics and turned them around. The Republican governor who stood up and cut spending instead of raising taxes, and turned around our most Democratic state."

Whether Romney "turned around" Massachusetts is in dispute: He closed a $3 billion budget gap but also raised the gasoline tax and other fees while cutting aid to localities. What is clear is that he checks most of the boxes on the conservative lists in his ads, promising to boost the military, secure U.S. borders against illegal immigration, strengthen marriage, protect children against violence and sex in entertainment and keep government "small" by vetoing non-defense spending that exceeds the rate of inflation. "I like vetoes," he says.

Shanto Iyengar, a professor of communications at Stanford University, said: "Business credentials, especially for a Republican candidate, are always a plus -- someone who's actually done stuff in the corporate world."

In a new commercial yesterday, Romney seemed to imply that his rivals, particularly Giuliani, are too moderate to receive the GOP nomination, saying: "Republicans have to put our own house in order. . . . When Republicans act like Democrats, America loses."

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