People May Dislike Attack Ads, but the Messages Tend to Stick

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 6, 2008

WOLFEBORO, N.H. -- Sandy Troendle, a nurse in this small lakeside resort, doesn't think much of Mitt Romney's attack ads.

"I tend to go for a person who promotes himself rather than slam-dunk other people," she says. Troendle is drawn to John McCain's commercials, because "I like that he stands up for what he believes is right rather than what the country wants to hear him say."

Ernie Brown, a retired Air Force pilot, also dislikes Romney's spots -- "I don't think negative ads help candidates at all," he says -- but easily echoes the message of Rudolph W. Giuliani's ads: "He's been the mayor of a major city. He didn't talk about cutting taxes; he cut taxes. He significantly reduced crime. He got things done."

Romney's defeat Thursday in Iowa -- where his negative spots pounded the eventual winner, Mike Huckabee -- doubles the stakes for Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, where McCain is his target. The senator from Arizona said on Friday that New Hampshire voters "are not going to be fooled" by Romney's attack ads. The former Massachusetts governor yesterday added a positive spot to his rotation.

Hillary Clinton has decided against airing negative ads for now despite her loss to Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in Iowa. The senator from New York, who has stayed positive on the airwaves, cut a commercial -- obtained by but not approved by the campaign -- in which a soft-voiced Clinton says voters should "ask one question: Who's ready to be president on Day One?"

The aerial bombardment across the state, as in Iowa, has reached saturation levels, prompting groaning among viewers who say the messages have become a blur. On news-related shows, the commercials stack up three and four at a time, crowding out pitches for restaurants and minivans.

The campaigns are expected to spend more than $26 million on New Hampshire spots, compared with $40 million in Iowa, according to the ad-tracking firm TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG. New Hampshire has just one network affiliate, Manchester's WMUR, but campaigns also snatch up time on stations in nearby Boston.

Romney's ads seem to air here twice as often as those of his rivals. The other night, viewers of Jim Belushi's sitcom "According to Jim" saw a spot that began: "Mitt Romney versus John McCain. On illegal immigration, there's a big difference. . . . McCain championed a bill to let every illegal immigrant in America stay permanently."

The Romney ad was followed by one for McCain: "As you hear Mitt Romney attack John McCain, consider these words from New Hampshire newspapers. . . . The Concord Monitor writes, 'If a candidate is a phony, we'll know it. Mitt Romney is such a candidate.' " But, most of the time, the Romney commercial airs with no response from his rival.

The images further each candidate's preferred narrative. Clinton is the calm and steady leader; Obama the uniter who transcends party differences; John Edwards the anti-corporate warrior; Giuliani the aggressive mayor tested by 9/11; Romney the can-do executive; McCain the truth-telling choice of editorial boards.

Huckabee's underfinanced campaign has little on-air presence here, but one spot presents him as the plain-spoken Southerner who knows what it's like "when you grow up and life's a struggle." New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) proclaims himself the only candidate with a plan for an immediate pullout from Iraq. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) vows to crack down on illegal immigration.

A silent Clinton ad uses on-screen graphics to declare: "America at a crossroads. Demands a leader with a steady hand -- who will weather the storms, solve our problems, rebuild our middle class, and renew our greatness." Several voters praised Clinton's positive spots -- but said they don't plan to vote for her.

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