Kerry ads lead with life story

A $25 million ad blitz stresses biography and Vietnam - a tactic with mixed past results.

The record $25 million being spent by the Kerry campaign on biographical ads some six months before the election is not only ramping up the pace and cost of the campaign. It is also reinforcing the unusually prominent role that Kerry's life story - particularly his service in Vietnam - is playing in the race.

All challengers need to find ways to introduce themselves to the public, particularly in the campaign's early stages. But biographies tend to have varying impacts when it comes to winning votes. Former Sen. Bob Dole's war record didn't win him enough support to topple President Clinton. But Mr. Clinton used his hardscrabble upbringing to draw an effective - and lasting - contrast with the first President Bush.

A candidate's biography tends to have the biggest impact if it contrasts with his opponent and dovetails with larger issues surrounding the race. Dwight Eisenhower's military career, for example, reassured voters during the cold war.

In Kerry's case, aides say the focus on his war record allows him to send the message that he is prepared to take over the role as commander in chief at a time of national security threats. It also allows him to draw a personal contrast with Mr. Bush, by highlighting Kerry's decision to enlist.

The new ads specifically note that Kerry went to Yale, and tell viewers he felt a responsibility, given that privilege, to give something back - an implicit comparison with Bush.

"I don't think anyone expects that a voter is going to cast a ballot for someone just because of their biography," says a top Kerry adviser. "But at the end of the day, people vote for people, and they want to know who these people are, what makes them tick, and what their experiences have been. That's all part of the picture that develops in people's minds of who these candidates are and what they're about."

The struggle to become familiar

On one level, the size of Kerry's ad buy may say less about the importance of biography in this race than it does about fundraising - and the fact that the Kerry campaign has enough money to market their candidate this aggressively so early.

At a briefing for reporters, Kerry adviser Tad Devine noted that Al Gore's campaign wanted to run biographical ads in the months leading up to the Democratic convention in 2000, but simply didn't have the resources to do it.

Kerry has already surpassed his goal of raising $80 million, and recently broke the record for fundraising in a single quarter - a phenomenon strategists attribute to a Democratic voters' desire to oust Bush.

"The extraordinary response, financially, has changed the game a little bit," says Democratic strategist Peter Fenn. "The money is there to advertise with some frequency and regularity."

But the focus on biography has been a hallmark of Kerry's campaign all along. During the primary season, he used similar ads highlighting his service in Vietnam, and stumped with veterans - a tactic that was highly successful in convincing voters he was the most qualified to take on Bush.

In a recent conference call with reporters, Bush adviser Matthew Dowd argued that it's no longer believable that Kerry is unknown to voters, since he ran biographical ads - and gained a flood of media attention - throughout the primary season, aside from the fact that he has been a public figure for decades.

A candidate still unknown?

Still, polls show many voters don't even know that Kerry is a veteran - suggesting that it may be worthwhile to continue emphasizing his past. Biography may also compensate for a lack of charisma - and give average Americans a way to relate to Kerry, despite his elite background.

"The most compelling part of John Kerry's story is his personal story, his combat experience in Vietnam," says Ken Goldstein of the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project. "The most compelling people to speak on his behalf are not Teddy Kennedy, but his crewmates."

Relevance of the past

Of course, the story Kerry puts forward in his ads is a selective one. The ads note that he was born in Colorado - a state where the spots will be aired - but say nothing about his years in Massachusetts. Although they do highlight certain elements of his Senate years, such as his vote for the Clinton economic plan, the overall focus is clearly Vietnam.

Republicans argue that Kerry's Vietnam service is less important to voters than his more recent biographical details such as his Senate career and the votes he's cast on matters like defense.

"What [candidates] were doing 30 years ago is nowhere near as relevant as what they were doing three years ago," says Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. "John Kerry's 19-year voting record on defense issues remains far more relevant to the choice voters face in November than what he did 30 years ago, because it's a far better indicator of his position on defense issues and his likely actions as a potential president."

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