Even without airing one ad, the Bush reelection team has already achieved the first goal of its much- anticipated TV campaign - creating buzz.
Since learning two weeks ago that Bush-Cheney '04 would start advertising earlier than planned, on March 4, the political world has chattered daily about the what, when, and where of the president's initial $4.5 million-plus ad spree. Bottom line: Bush is aiming to shore up his base of conservative support while getting his message out in the most competitive states in an election both parties think will be close. He will also start his TV appeal for the votes of Hispanics, now the largest minority group in America.
The theme of the ads, according to people who have seen them, is Bush as a "war president," playing off the reelection theme of "steady leadership in times of change."
Reports indicate that the Bush campaign has bought ad time on national cable news and sports channels, plus local broadcast stations in 17 states, which not coincidentally are the states that analysts agree make up the battleground for election 2004. Further, President Bush will start advertising next week on Spanish-language networks Univision and Telemundo in competitive states with large Hispanic populations: Florida, New Mexico, Nevada, and Arizona.
Venues for the English-language ads include CNBC, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox Sports Net, which airs NASCAR races. The campaign is also looking into advertising on ESPN, the Golf Channel, and the History Channel, all of which have high male viewership, and on the Home and Garden channel, popular with older women.
"The cable strategy is wise, because realistically, you've had about eight months of very hard-hitting political debate in the Democratic primary that's been almost 90 percent anti-Bush," says Evan Tracey, president of TNS Media Intelligence/ Campaign Media Analysis Group. "It's wise to try to push back a little bit."
Bush will also enjoy the "multiplier effect" of advance coverage. News channels will report and discuss the ads - and, of course, air the ads, or snippets, for free.
"Especially on cable news, within the Brady Bunch squares, you will have debates on the merits of the ads and all sorts of truth-checking," says Mr. Tracey. "But in the end, they will buy the time, because it's an unfiltered message. It will be in people's living rooms and offices and all the places they're trying to reach voters."
The ad campaign is timed to coincide with the likely effective end of the race for the Democratic nomination, with Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts on the verge of an unsurmountable lead in delegates. The Bush campaign calculation is that Kerry will be tapped out financially, at least for a time, and that while he reloads, Bush will have the message playing field to himself. Even though most voters aren't paying much attention to the campaign, the early days are when they form initial impressions.
Bush's job-approval ratings have steadily sunk during the Democrats' spirited battle, near or into the danger zone of below 50 percent. Most polls of general-election matchups show Bush losing to Senator Kerry and to Sen. John Edwards (D) of North Carolina, Kerry's main competitor.
"I would have cheered on an effort to have these ads even last fall," says GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway, noting that President Clinton in 1996 began advertising against GOP nominee Bob Dole and the Republican Congress early, a strategy that mortally wounded Mr. Dole's campaign.
For Bush, the initial round of ads will be only positive. "We are launching our advertising campaign with a positive message focused on the president's record and vision for moving the country forward," says Scott Stanzel, a campaign spokesman.
But Democrats expect Bush, after a couple of weeks, to start hitting hard on Kerry - either with straight-up negative ads or with so-called "comparative" ads that spin Kerry's record negatively.
The Democrats are bracing themselves. "The Bush campaign is going to say, 'We've been hammered now for a year, and we're fighting back and doing this positive ad - it's morning again in the White House,' " says Peter Fenn, a Democratic communications specialist, who worked on Al Gore's 2000 campaign. "Then he takes the rest of his $200 million and shoves it down our throats!"
Mr. Fenn also predicts that Kerry's campaign coffers won't be depleted for long. "A lot of people are sitting on their checkbooks to make sure he's the guy," he says. "Once the advertising starts from the Bush campaign, you watch those computers light up.... [Democrats] are going to be poppin' on the Mastercharge bigtime. He's not going to raise $200 or $250 million, but he'll raise enough and fast enough to be up on the air and competitive."
It may be a long eight months between now and election day, as each campaign fears letting up at all, lest the other side gain an advantage. Whether the American public changes the channel or not is another matter.
But for Bush, there's also the advantage of incumbency, in which his daily activities often make the evening news.
In recent months, though, Bush's "bully pulpit" appearances have not served him well. His State of the Union message fell flat on the public's ears, and his interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" sparked criticism even from conservative pundits. Thus the move into paid media, where nothing is left to chance and the script is carefully crafted.
If his outreach to conservatives reflects an effort to solidify his base, Bush's pitch to Hispanics reflects a bow to the new reality of ethnic voting: While blacks are still the largest bloc of minority voters, Hispanics - whose population in the US, now 35 million, has more than doubled in the past decade - will in time overtake them. Already, Bush made inroads with the Hispanic community in 2000, winning 35 percent of its votes. In 1996, Dole won only 21 percent.