SIOUX CITY, IOWA -- The message of Bruce Babbitt's new television commercial could not be more resonant, nor its timing more felicitous.

The 30-second spot consists almost entirely of favorable press notices about the longshot Democratic presidential candidate, as male and female announcers intone a responsive reading.

Quoting such publications as The New York Times Magazine and The New Republic on the former Arizona governor's "substance" and "courage," the advertisement began running this week in the opening caucus state, just as television networks and Iowa news outlets seized on Babbitt as the great new discovery of the 1988 campaign.

While Republican Pat Robertson and former Colorado Democratic senator Gary Hart have been trying to run against and around the media by taking their campaigns to "the people," Babbitt's message seems to be: "Let the media decide."

At the moment, his paid television commercials and free network and local news coverage are perfectly synchronized. But, judging from 2 1/2 days of almost continuous television viewing this week in Des Moines, the nation's 66th largest TV market, and Sioux City, the 123rd largest, the entire Iowa campaign is not so sharply focused.

With 24 days until the precinct caucuses, on Feb. 8, the exercise indicated that both parties' contenders must vie for viewers' attention with more immediate concerns, such as apartment fires, subzero weather, the Iowa lottery and -- as a commercial for an agricultural pesticide said -- "the struggle against root worms."

The undertaking also demonstrated how the "paid media" interact with the "free media" to project complimentary or contradictory images of those who would be president.

For instance, the Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) portrayed in his commercial is compassionate and rooted in small-town values -- "one of us," the announcer incants.

That clashed with the Dole of the evening news, "the ultimate Washington insider," as Des Moines television reporter Barbara Bernell described him in a profile on WHO-TV, "a political junkie of ferocious ambition."

Dole, the GOP front-runner in Iowa, and dark horse Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) -- "If he wins, we all win," said his ad -- were the most persistent political advertisers during the 50-hour viewing period, each with a commercial seen nine times.

Virtually all of Kemp's televised moments showed him attacking Dole and Vice President Bush as tax-hikers and portrayed Kemp as a tax cutter.

Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) was next, with two spots seen seven times. One depicted Simon, fists clenched as if spoiling for a fight, facing the camera and vowing to eliminate the federal deficit and "tackle the problems of education, unemployment and long-term care for seniors."

In the other, Simon seemed to simmer with moral outrage as he assailed "tax breaks for the wealthy" and claimed to be "the only candidate in either political party who's opposed every one of those unfair tax breaks."

These commercials contrasted sharply with earlier Simon spots that showed a contemplative senator reflecting on his life and times at his pond-front home.

In a report on Sioux City's CBS affiliate, KTIV-TV, that reinforced his freshly aggressive image, Simon was shown stridently objecting when the moderator of Monday night's Democratic mini-debate in Sioux City told him that his time was up.

Two commercials for Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) showed him "getting tough" with "corporate America" and vowing not to "let the family farm die." "It's your fight, too," the announcer said.

A biographical Gephardt spot, run repeatedly in December, has impressed at least one potential Iowa caucus-goer. "Gearhart {sic} has something to say," Des Moines hotel maid Shirley Scovel said as she made a bed. "He's been through it all, with his folks losing the farm and his son getting cancer . . . . "

In Robertson's lone spot, he asked viewers not to vote for him just yet. "I'm just asking you to listen," he said.

Bush was not running commercials.

Hart and Jesse L. Jackson, who have yet to air spots, got their usual generous share of television time, Jackson for an Iowa campaign swing and Hart for a tearful interview with the Des Moines Register.

Babbitt, however, is the media's new "semi-official designated hero -- Campaign '88's brave teller of truth," as ABC correspondent Jeff Greenfield declared Monday on "Nightline." He's "the idea man of the Democratic Party," Ken Bode said on "NBC Nightly News."

"If one candidate did stand out, it may have been Bruce Babbitt," reporter Greg Lunde said on Sioux City's ABC affiliate, KCAU-TV, analyzing the "idea man's" performance at the four-candidate mini-debate.

"This is kind of an unusual thing that we're seeing," Babbitt adviser John Russonello said of all the attention. "Usually the amount of network time and the amount of newspaper clips you receive is totally dependent on your poll ratings."