The ads hit the screen one after another--punctuated by pitches for ski lodges and furniture stores--and their message is largely about protecting and improving government programs.
To a blurry-eyed viewer, even the spots for Republican presidential candidates sound like Democratic ads, trumpeting the tried-and-true themes of education, health care and Social Security.
"We find children stuck in failed schools--that's unacceptable," a casually dressed George W. Bush tells a town meeting. "I will not allow your Social Security money to be used for any purpose other than Social Security," says a fiery John McCain.
And the Democrats, well, sound like full-throated Democrats. In one ad, Vice President Gore vows "to protect Social Security from those who want to raise the retirement age." And Bill Bradley tells an audience that "not only do I not cut back on Medicare, but we expand Medicare."
The commercials cluttering the airwaves here reflect a drastically altered political landscape compared with 1996, when the GOP leadership in Congress was still pushing to abolish the Education Department. The media blitz is part of what one Republican operative calls "a stampede to the mushy middle."
"It's a far cry from tax cuts, welfare reform and crime," said GOP strategist Ed Gillespie. "This is the terrain in which we find ourselves going into the 2000 election. These are the issues of concern to Republican voters as well as Democratic voters."
Darrell West, a Brown University political scientist, said the spots reflect "a post-impeachment world where Democratic issues are dominating the agenda. . . . Republicans have really struggled with what their message is going to be."
Tax cuts have not vanished from the airwaves, with Bush and Steve Forbes both hitting the issue in their ads. But even on this historically Republican subject, Bush is taking pains to frame his proposal around a rhetoric of inclusiveness. At a Bedford community center last week, the Texas governor said the purpose of his tax plan is "to make sure our system is fair . . . especially for low-income Americans who struggle on the outskirts of poverty."
"Bush is the Republican Bill Clinton," West said. "He is trying to reposition his party in the middle in the way that Clinton altered the Democratic Party."
McCain, who is slightly ahead of Bush in the New Hampshire polls, said the Republicans are trying to blunt the usual Democratic rhetoric about GOP tax-cutting. "We've always been attacked for being the party of the rich, cruel and heartless," he said. "It's been sort of their shtick."
But McCain himself has criticized Bush from the left, accusing him of "cutting taxes for the rich" instead of devoting more of the projected budget surplus, as the Arizona senator would, to shoring up Social Security.
Karen Hughes, Bush's spokeswoman, acknowledged that "tax cuts, the polls show, do not have particular resonance. He's talking about it because he thinks it's important." She said that Bush's ads stress education reform because "it's his personal passion" and happens to "appeal to a wide spectrum of voters."
Forbes has gone the furthest in trying to tap into public resentment about taxes, saying in one ad, "I want to take control of the tax system away from the IRS and give it back to you." The multimillionaire publisher also takes a populist approach to the issue of health maintenance organizations, saying he wants "a health care system where you choose your own doctor, not politicians and bureaucrats."
In another sign of the changing climate, McCain argues at nearly every campaign stop for a "patients' bill of rights"--a reference to legislation, blocked by the GOP-controlled Congress, that would allow patients to sue their health plans.
The dominance of such domestic concerns as education and health care reflects a climate of soaring stocks and low unemployment, a far cry from the "it's the economy, stupid" campaign of 1992. At the same time, the demise of the Soviet Union and the lack of a current military conflict has, with a couple of exceptions, pushed campaign advertising away from defense issues. "Generally speaking, foreign policy is not even on the charts," McCain said.
But McCain invokes his military credentials in one ad that has drawn less attention because it is airing only in South Carolina. In that commercial--which is the only overt shot at the president so far--Rep. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) praises McCain for his intention to "stop Bill Clinton's betrayal of our military."
Gillespie, the Republican strategist, claims the debate has shifted to education, Social Security and the like because the GOP Congress took the lead on welfare reform and wiping out the budget deficit. "We're in a Democratic issue set because we prevailed on the Republican set," he said. But Mandy Grunwald, who made ads for Clinton's 1992 campaign, credits her former boss with co-opting the usual GOP themes of crime and budget-balancing. "It's kind of fun to watch them run on our issues," she said of Bush and McCain.
The Democrats aren't ceding the turf. In new ads late last week, Bradley calls for "training 60,000 new teachers a year," while Gore is described as having been "endorsed by America's teachers."
One striking feature of the early 2000 ads is their straightforward quality, both in tone--they are uniformly positive--and in the lack of fancy graphics or arresting images. In a season when "authenticity" has become a major buzzword, the admakers seem wary of too many bells and whistles.
Most of the spots consist mainly of the candidates speaking to the camera or addressing voters, using the same style they employ on the stump. Bush appears relaxed and confident, McCain impassioned, Forbes slightly awkward, Gore somewhat didactic and Bradley rather high-minded.
"We're in a post-Clinton world where slick is not a good thing," Gillespie said.
CAPTION: TV spots for Republican presidential candidates sound like Democratic ads: Bush pushes his education plan, and McCain touts Social Security protections.