In the final days of the political air war over the Super Tuesday South, the candidates are launching their last messages - seeking late surges of popularity in what remain largely unpredictable primary battles. Richard Gephardt launched a sudden television blitz late this week, moving from cheap, backwater markets to big-city stations. Albert Gore Jr. has sustained his steady commercial barrage across 14 Super Tuesday states for weeks, outspending all rivals, but struggling over his message.
Pat Robertson fired the biggest missile when he bought a prime-time half-hour on South Carolina television last night for a biographical commercial.
All four Republican candidates have poured their war chests into South Carolina television because of that state's leadoff primary on Saturday.
Without a single leadoff battle, the Democrats are spread thinner - especially Senator Gore and Representative Gephardt who are fighting each other on all fronts for many of the same voters.
The massive, 20-state size of Super Tuesday demands that it be fought over the airwaves. Candidates cannot actually meet or address directly a large share of voters as in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Most of the air war is fought through news coverage. Candidates hop from airport to airport for stops as brief as 20 minutes just to make the evening news on local television.
Newspapers play a somewhat different role - frequently setting the tone and theme of news coverage and influencing what questions television reporters ask. Television commercials have been potent in the early-season races.
Ads are given partial credit for Gephardt's comeback win in Iowa (the famous $48,000 K-car ad on trade policy) and for George Bush's comeback win in New Hampshire (attacking Robert Dole as a tax-raiser). Gephardt also overcame a lead by Michael Dukakis in South Dakota with the help of an ad ridiculing a Dukakis comment suggesting that Midwestern farmers grow blueberries, flowers, and Belgian endive.
But the many primaries on March 8 form a harder audience to reach.
``The race is pretty fluid,'' says Democratic consultant Greg Schneiders. ``The problem is there's such a huge playing field and such limited resources that it's difficult to bring around major shifts'' in popularity.
None of the Democrats, he explains, have enough money to invade one another's constituencies: ``So they're preaching to their choirs.''
Television stations around the South - outside of South Carolina - are finding Super Tuesday a commercial flop.
``I've been a little surprised,'' says Toby Steinberg, vice-president for sales at Turner Broadcasting Systems, which has a national cable audience especially concentrated in the Southeast. Only the Gore campaign has purchased time there, and not since mid-February.
``The Democratic money is probably going to Florida and Texas,'' Mr. Steinberg speculates.
In Texas, John Campbell of Houston's KPRC sums up what other stations are finding: ``It's little and late.''
One heavy battleground is Spanish-language television. ``The Democrats are going after Texas in a big way,'' says Blaine Harden of Univision, a Spanish-language network. Gore and Governor Dukakis are fighting for Spanish-speaking south Texans. Mr. Robertson aired a dubbed version of his half-hour biographical documentary in February, trying to lure south Texas Democrats over to the GOP primary. Vice-President Bush has the Spanish-language airwaves in south Florida all to himself.
The most consistent commercial presence across the South has been Gore. He has been appearing in most major television markets beginning as far back as three weeks ago and as recently as yesterday.
Until midweek, he was running biographical commercials, introducing himself to viewers, while Gephardt was gaining ground with a sharpened populist message of economic nationalism.
Gore's new spots tout his concern for ``the average working man and woman'' and indirectly attack Gephardt: Wouldn't it be easier if we could blame all our troubles on foreigners? one ad asks viewers. ``Well, here in the South, we're better than that.''
Gephardt is chiefly running ads that have worked for him elsewhere, such as the ``K-car'' and ``Belgian endive'' ads.
Gephardt has been stretching his Super Tuesday media budget by buying time in rural markets and daytime slots - trying to get ``more bang for the buck.'' But late this week, his coffers filling, Gephardt placed orders in Atlanta, Miami, and Texas cities.
Dukakis is focusing on Florida, Texas, and Maryland. Bush is outspending his GOP rivals handily, inside and outside South Carolina.
Senator Dole is attacking Bush vigorously in ads alleging ``waffling'' on taxes, unconcern for textile workers, and flawed leadership in foreign affairs.