A question of timing

It has become known as one of the most effective TV presidential campaign commercials ever: President Bush consoling a 9-year-old Ohio girl named Ashley whose mother died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Bush hugged Ashley at an appearance in Ohio in 2003, holding her close and telling her, “I know that’s hard. Are you all right?”

The story of Bush’s hug ran in the Cincinnati Enquirer. In June 2004, a group called Progress For America, a conservative pro-Bush group known as a 527 organization, so named for the part of the federal tax code that covers such groups, decided to make an ad of the president’s hug of Ashley.

But recently, Patrick Devlin, a University of Rhode Island professor of communication studies and an expert in campaign advertising, told a convention of communication professors in Boston that he has uncovered evidence that shows the Bush campaign and Progress for America worked together to make sure the commercial didn’t run until near the end of the campaign _ which, if true, would be a violation of federal campaign laws that prohibit cooperation between presidential campaigns and independent groups.

Mark McKinnon, Bush’s media adviser, and Tom Josefiak, the top lawyer for Bush’s 2004 campaign, disputed Devlin, with McKinnon calling Devlin’s charges “inaccurate.”

Ashley, her father and her aunt agreed to make the ad. Ashley underscored the power of the hug by saying, “He’s the most powerful man in the world and all he wants to do is make sure I’m safe.”

Then her father chimed in, saying, “What I saw was what I want to see in the heart and in the soul of the man who sits in the highest elected office in our country.”

The spot was put together by Larry McCarthy, who gained fame in the 1988 presidential camapign by creating the famous Willie Horton ad used against Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis.

The Progress for America group spent about $20 million running and promoting the Ashley ad in 11 battleground states; the ad ran 7,000 times in Ohio toward the end of Bush’s campaign against Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.

In the end, Bush narrowly won Ohio and the presidency. Top Kerry campaign officials say the ad was so effective _ coming as it did near the end of the campaign _ that it may have swung Ohio over to Bush.

“We lost the election because of September 11 and terrorism,” said Tad Devine, a top Kerry strategist, in an interview. “I think that ad might be why we lost Ohio, and because we lost Ohio, we lost the election.”

“With everything that has been happening to Bush, this is really big if it holds up,” Devine said. “This could have real consequences.”

Another top Kerry strategist, Robert Shrum, was even more emphatic, Devlin said. “When all is said and done, and all this money is spent … it was that ad that determined the outcome of the race.”

Devlin also said McKinnon told him in a taped interview after the election that a lawyer McKinnon did not name tipped him to the ad and told him not to use Ashley or her family in a film he was producing for the Bush campaign to use at the Republican National Convention in August.

In his lecture, Devlin quoted McKinnon as saying that Ashley was supposed to be part of the convention film. But, McKinnon said, “I got a call from a lawyer who said it might not be a good idea for you to do that … I didn’t know what was going on, but people were sending a signal and … I was encouraged not to use Ashley because that might have complicated what they want to do.”

Devlin said McKinnon called him after the interview and asked the professor not to use his comments in his written account of the Ashley spot. “He said he would not mind my using the story in a class or public lecture format. He just asked me not to write it.”

But McKinnon said in a statement, “Mr. Devlin’s observations were inaccurate. There was unequivocally no collusion. I never spoke with anyone from PFA (Progress for America) about any ad ever during the campaign. I never knew there was an Ashley ad until I saw it on the air. It did occur to me that Ashley’s story could be used in a third-party ad in some capacity. But I had no prior knowledge of what that capacity might be and when or if that might happen.”