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Political ad wars take over airways

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November 26, 2007

In Iowa, ’tis the season for TV pitches, political and commercial. By the time Iowans ring in the New Year, they may be sick of both.

An earlier date for Iowa’s caucuses probably means presidential candidates will run more television ads from mid-November through December, the height of the Christmas shopping season when retailers want to promote sales.

Moving the caucuses up 11 days to Jan. 3 also will force candidates to pay top dollar for TV ads over the holidays and soften their messages to avoid violating the serenity of the season. The same equation applies in New Hampshire, whose first-in-the-nation primary will follow the Iowa caucuses five days later.

“This is just like adding a hailstorm to a hurricane,” said Evan Tracey, who tracks political advertising as chief operating officer for TNS Media Intelligence/Campaign Media Analysis Group. “You’ve got a 16-deep field of candidates, interest groups and everybody else that’s all going to want the same time.”

The schedule presents a conundrum for the presidential campaigns. Political advertising has a tendency to become more negative closer to an election as candidates seek to contrast themselves with their rivals.

“Attack ads don’t necessarily blend well with Santa Claus and holiday cheer,” said Steve McMahon, a Democratic media strategist who ran Howard Dean’s presidential ad campaign in 2003 and 2004.

What’s more, in a field with many candidates, negative advertising can backfire.

“If candidate A attacks candidate B, it’s often not candidate A who benefits. It’s candidate C or D or E,” McMahon said.

He should know. In 2003, Dean was the target of negative advertising from liberal and conservative independent groups in Iowa and then engaged in tit-for-tat attack ads with Dick Gephardt. The result was that John Kerry won the Iowa caucuses and John Edwards came in second.

To avoid such a scenario, candidates may count on independent groups to do the dirty work during the holidays. The Federal Election Commission on Tuesday opened the way for corporations and unions to finance political ad campaigns in the closing days of an election, provided they focus on a public policy issue.

But those issue ads still can target a candidate, and campaign finance experts are counting on a barrage to hit the Iowa and New Hampshire airwaves next month. The only question facing any independent groups is whether there are enough time slots available for a 30-second or 60-second TV spot.

Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines, predicted that campaigns would run positive ads promoting candidates until Christmas, then switch to a tougher tone in the week leading to the caucuses.

“There’s not much of a window there between Christmas spirit and caucus battle,” Goldford said. “There’s a certain amount of guesswork because we haven’t been in this position before.”

Tim Albrecht, a spokesman for Republican Mitt Romney, said all the campaigns will work to design ads that stand out while also remaining appropriate for the holiday season. “With the holiday ads and the added retailers, no doubt it’s going to be a bit more cluttered this time than maybe years past,” he said.

Campaigns strategists say they worry more about turning voters off in Iowa, where attending caucuses requires effort and commitment.

Fergus Cullen, the chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, said New Hampshire voters understand that politics will intrude on their holiday.

“I expect candidates will work the Communion line at St. Joe’s on Christmas Eve,” he joked. “New Hampshire voters take the process seriously and they fully expect to be in the thick of politics during the holiday season and that includes contrasting message. It won’t harm candidates if they run aggressive campaigns.”

All this costs money. Television stations must provide air time to federal election candidates beginning 45 days before an election. If candidates pay top rate, they can grab a specific time slot and bump other advertisers who had the space reserved.

Saying no to local advertisers puts stations in a difficult position, but most business people understand, said Steve Lake, national sales manager at KCRG-TV in Cedar Rapids.

“Most of them have been through this before and they understand we can only do what we can do,” Lake said. “There’s quite a bit of displacement that goes on.”

Lake said bumped advertisers usually are offered a spot elsewhere in the station’s schedule with a comparable rating, but with only so many hours in the day, some advertisers will be out of luck. The pressure will build as front-running candidates boost their ad buys and lesser-known candidates go for broke, he said.

Paul Fredericksen, general manager of KCCI-TV in Des Moines, said all the station can do is seek a balance between political buyers and retailers during the expected holiday crunch.

“One thing we always keep in mind is that political is temporary and retail is something that is a livelihood day in and day out,” Fredericksen said. “But at the same time on the political side, there are certain rules and regulations we have to comply with.”

Station managers expect many candidates will pay top rates to ensure sought-after time slots, given a campaign season that already has set TV advertising spending records.

Both Romney and Democrat Barack Obama have spent at least $4 million each for ads in Iowa. Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bill Richardson also have exceeded the more than $2.5 million that Kerry spent in the state in 2003 and 2004.

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Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington contributed to this report.