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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / TV

It Takes a Tight Focus to Raise a Low Profile

Candidates for posts like secretary of state and attorney general rarely have money for major TV campaigns. So single ads assume great importance.


She has logged hundreds of miles on the campaign trail, exchanged scores of hearty handshakes and thrown her soul into dozens of speeches. But in the end, Michela Alioto's quest to become California's secretary of state may depend on this:

A single 30-second TV ad airing in Los Angeles for just one week.

Alioto is a "down-ballot" candidate, one of those earnest, underfunded people seeking an office below the marquee races for governor and U.S. Senate.

Unlike the top-of-the-ticket types, down-ballot dwellers get little notice from the media and can rarely raise the campaign cash needed to compete on TV. In a political world where television is king, that makes them all but invisible.

Alioto is one of the lucky ones: She actually has enough money to get her message--however briefly--on the air. Doing so, however, will consume half her total campaign budget of about $900,000. And the commercial will be seen only in Los Angeles--on only one station and only this week.

"We've been working on this campaign since last November, and it's sad to think that a full year of work is going to come down to a 30-second TV spot that the average person in L.A. will see maybe three times," said Tom Pier, Alioto's campaign manager. "That's 90 seconds of communication. That's all we get."

As it turns out, they're lucky to get that. Recently, network affiliates in Los Angeles and other markets have begun rejecting requests by down-ballot candidates for air time--or restricting them to a few not-so-choice slots.

The reason? Money. When they sell time to candidates, stations must offer it at a price below what they get from sponsors of initiatives and regular clients selling soap or tires. If there's a glut of ads, the lowest bidder for the time loses.

That is but one sad fact of life for those seeking down-ballot offices, a list of important but in some cases obscure jobs that includes lieutenant governor, attorney general, controller, treasurer and superintendent of public instruction.

Denied the luxury of an extended TV campaign, down-ballot candidates must craft their on-air pitches with extreme care. A gubernatorial hopeful can parcel out information in eight or 10 or a dozen spots. The down-balloters have to speak their piece in one.

"Your message inevitably gets compressed," said Bill Carrick, a consultant to the campaign of state Sen. Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) for attorney general. "We'd all love to do the bio spot, a record spot, an issue spot, a contrast-with-my-opponent spot and an uplifting close. But the money's not there."

The pressure to cram everything into one ad produces mixed results. With all of a campaign's time and talent poured into a single spot, the product is sometimes a disciplined, stellar effort.

"You're not running and gunning, slapping these babies together, responding overnight to an opponent's ad," said Richie Ross, a consultant for Lockyer and Assemblyman Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno), who is running for lieutenant governor. "We probably wrote 25 versions of our Bustamante spot. There's time, and the ads are better because of it."

Sometimes, however, the urge to say it all in one message prompts candidates to overreach, leading to a kitchen-sink ad that swamps viewers with information. Smaller budgets also mean less money to spend on production values, the ingredients that help make an ad look, sound and feel rich and appealing.

"There's a reason Coke and Pepsi spend $1 million to produce a spot," GOP consultant Sal Russo said. "TV is an emotion medium, and high production value helps to elicit the emotional response you want."

In producing a spot for U.S. Senate candidate Matt Fong, Russo was able to shoot amid the redwoods in Marin County, and use film instead of videotape for a richer look. Fong could afford it--he has raised close to $8 million.

Russo's down-ballot candidate this year, attorney general hopeful Dave Stirling, has a lot less money in his wallet--$1.6 million at the end of last month. Consequently, he will not be starring in any ads filmed in the woods.

Another factor shaping ads for down-ballot candidates is the need to anticipate what opponents might do in their ads, since there will be no money left for an on-air response.

Ross likens this strategic game to "sudden-death football. You have to read the signs, figure out what your opponent might do and then kick the winning field goal."

To understand the lot of the down-ballot candidates, it helps to look at the ad budgets of the up-ballot group. The two men running for governor--Democrat Gray Davis and Republican Dan Lungren--are spending $1 million or more a week on TV ads.

Expenditures on ads for and against Proposition 5, the Indian gambling initiative, are running close to $2 million a week.

Ray McNally, a Republican consultant in Sacramento, says that to "truly compete and make your message sink in," a candidate must spend a minimum of $1 million a week on advertising in Los Angeles.

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