Bill Bradley's campaign has been more thematic than emotional, but in one of his final ads here, the candidate speaks movingly of meeting a mother without health insurance whose son felt badly about getting a sore throat.
"No child in America should have to apologize because they got sick," Bradley says. "Now's the time to think big. Now's the time to guarantee every child in America health care."
The encounter in Salem, N.H., last week, which brought tears to Bradley's eyes and which he cited in Wednesday night's debate here, was hardly as accidental as it seemed. The woman, Cathy Perry, had called the campaign offering to volunteer, and aides, after briefing Bradley, brought Perry to the event to tell him the story herself.
Orchestrated or not, the "Mom" ad underscores what the presidential candidates are seeking to accomplish in the run-up to Tuesday's high-stakes primary. They are using their closing commercials to try to connect with wavering voters and reinforce their core messages amid the static of intensifying news coverage.
The 30-second spots reduce each candidate to his cinematic essence. Vice President Gore: The Fighter. Bradley: Mr. Health Care. George W. Bush: The Optimist. John McCain: The Commander. Steve Forbes: The Outsider.
The candidates have poured nearly $8 million into New Hampshire advertising, according to a Boston Globe estimate. After a season in which even the handful of critical ads were relatively mild, the charges and countercharges have yielded to a strikingly positive finale.
Gore's ad attempts to position him as a champion of the little guy: "He's taken on the worst polluters in America. He fought efforts to cut Medicare. He's taken on the HMOs and big drug companies. Al Gore. Fighting for us." In a second spot using the same tag line, Gore seeks to take credit for the administration's economic policies, boasting of "100,000 new jobs in New Hampshire alone."
Said Gore spokesman Chris Lehane: "When people sit around the breakfast table, you want them to know exactly what Al Gore's going to do to help their families."
Bradley spokeswoman Kristen Ludecke says Bradley adopted an anecdotal approach in the "Mom" ad because "sometimes there's nothing that crystallizes why action is needed more than a story. He's made health care the centerpiece of his agenda."
McCain's latest ad is hardly subtle. Mixing footage of war scenes, China and the Arizona senator standing before a warship, the commercial plays the POW card in painting McCain as a potential commander-in-chief: "International tensions, hot spots and uncertainties around the globe. There's only one man running for president who knows the military and understands the world: John McCain. As a Navy pilot and POW, he's seen the horrors of war."
Some news reports described the spot as an attack on Bush's lack of active-duty experience, a notion dismissed by McCain at Wednesday's GOP debate here. "The definition of 'attack' has changed," said McCain's media adviser, Greg Stevens. "No voter is going to look at that as an attack ad. It's taking one of McCain's strongest qualities--his experience in military and foreign affairs--and blowing our own horn. It is a way to draw a contrast, no question about that."
Bush employs a Reaganesque tone in returning to an early theme of improving the moral tenor of a post-Clinton White House. "I have great hope for America's future," the Texas governor says. "The next president must work to strengthen families and restore values. I believe my compassionate conservative vision can unite America and win the White House." A second ad touts his tax cut plan.
"You want to focus on a few themes that stick with people," said Bush media consultant Stuart Stevens. "It's looking people in the eye and offering a positive argument, which is something he does particularly well."
Steve Forbes's latest ad seeks to capitalize on his second-place showing in Iowa's caucuses and position himself as the rebel taking on the political establishment. "This is not a good night for the power brokers of Washington, D.C.," Forbes tells a cheering crowd. "We broke the political rules. We put out positive messages and bold ideas."
One of the few attack ads airing here features Robert J. Dole assailing Forbes for using negative spots against him during the 1996 campaign. The new ad is being financed by the Republican Leadership Council, made up heavily of Bush donors and supporters. "I emerged the Republican nominee, battered, bruised and broke, and a much easier target for the negative Clinton-Gore fall campaign," says a narrator quoting Dole. "I speak up now only because it may be happening again."
"This is not quite the state where I'd be touting Dole's name," said Bill Dal Col, Forbes's campaign manager, recalling the former senator's losses here. He accused the council of improper collusion with the Bush camp, a charge for which a Bush spokesman said there was "no evidence."