At 11:30 Tuesday morning, as a sweater-clad George W. Bush was talking to reporters outside a factory in Pittsfield, N.H., the Canon XL-1 was running. By 6:13 a.m. Wednesday, the latest Bush ad was on the air and kicking up a political fuss.
The staff's $5,000 digital camera has become a crucial part of Bush's strategy of producing "crash ads" that hit the airwaves with a velocity that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. In a very real sense, these ads--which Bush's campaign calls "video news releases"--circumvent the press by mimicking what journalists do.
"It has higher credibility with viewers because they know it's not scripted and it's actual footage from the campaign trail," said Mark McKinnon, Bush's media adviser. "It has a very raw feel to it, which works because of the immediacy. It's like news. . . . It allows us to present our version of the news of the day." In fact, the campaign buys spots during local newscasts.
Russ Schriefer, a member of the campaign's media team, trails Bush around New Hampshire with the XL-1, taping virtually all of his public remarks for possible advertising use.
The "crash" spots, which supplement traditional ads, are not entirely unscripted. On Tuesday, the Texas governor was primed to unload on John McCain's tax proposal. The campaign had decided to charge--despite strong denials from the Arizona senator's campaign--that McCain's plan would impose a $40 billion tax hike on job-related fringe benefits. At the session with reporters, Bush said: "My opponent trusts the people of Washington to spend money. I trust the people of New Hampshire. . . . If he says something I don't agree with, I am going to point it out. I darn sure don't agree with saying you're going to take $40 billion of employer-related benefits and have people pay taxes on them--I think that is a mistake."
After the event, McKinnon, Schriefer and colleague Laura Crawford, who did the videotaping, drove to WMUR-TV, New Hampshire's dominant station, in Manchester. During the ride, they played back the tape in the camera, using headphones for sound, and made preliminary decisions about which footage to use.
At 1:15, in a rented video room at the station, McKinnon and company edited Bush's remarks down to 30 seconds, adding a couple of identifying graphics. They e-mailed the proposed script to campaign headquarters in Austin and sent a "QuickTime" video by computer as well. Then they got on the phone with the Bush brain trust.
Senior strategist Karl Rove thought one part of Bush's remarks was unclear and asked that part of a different sentence be used. McKinnon and Schriefer made the changes, played the ad over the phone, and barely met WMUR's 3 p.m. deadline for commercials slated to air the next day. "Voters have become very sophisticated," McKinnon said. "They discount political advertising, recognizing it for what it is: something packaged and produced by the campaigns. This is more direct."
Several years ago, in the pre-digital age, a campaign would have needed a professional crew with a cameraman and sound man, the editing would have taken longer, and the tapes would have been sent to the station by overnight mail.
The speed of Bush's spot added to its impact. McCain demanded that he pull the ad, saying it misrepresents his tax plan, and yesterday responded with a counterattack ad. The Bush team had crashed its way into the headlines.