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Stay Tuned for Political Advertising Prime Time

Campaign: Presidential candidates reach most California voters via airwaves. Poor choices can be a financial drain.


Sifting through a sheaf of computer printouts and television schedules, Jamie Sterling and his staff finally came up with the answer for Vice President Al Gore: golf. This weekend's Doral-Ryder Open golf tournament, to be precise.

"It's a smart buy," said Sterling, the media analyst who chooses which television programs are best for Gore's campaign ads. "Golf is an older-skewing sport," meaning the viewers are also reliable voters. "It's not that expensive," he added. "And on the weekends, we don't have as many opportunities to reach people."

So it was that Gore's media buyer decided to place a 30-second commercial on today's broadcast of the Florida match. Republican George W. Bush also bought a spot on the event, just one of hundreds of programs political buyers are watching these days as they wage the campaign air wars.

Media buyers play a pivotal role in a campaign's performance, particularly in California, where candidates reach most voters through the airwaves. As Tuesday's critical primary nears, buyers are pondering whether more of their voters will tune in to "Jeopardy!" or "The View."

"You better trust who you've got in this job, because they're going to make some very important decisions on behalf of the campaign," said Bill Carrick, a veteran California political strategist.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, ad buyers face off in an arcane chess match. It essentially comes down to who can better crunch the overnight Nielsen ratings into the latest Gallup Poll--and who can play hardball with TV station salespeople.

Working under limited campaign budgets, top buyers seek to mix a few expensive spots on highly rated prime-time shows with a larger number of cheaper ads on lower-rated daytime or late-night programs.

Particularly when placing ads in California's pricey media markets, poorly executed ad buys can mean millions in wasted campaign funds. A 30-second spot broadcast on a single Los Angeles TV station during prime time can easily cost $1,000 per second.

A Times analysis of advertising contracts at the ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates in Los Angeles shows the four major presidential candidates have spent approximately $5.1 million to place commercials on those stations alone in the three weeks leading up to the Tuesday primary. Statewide, the candidates are spending more than $10 million on ads for the primary, according to estimates by several buyers.

Democrat Bill Bradley has spent far more than the others: about $3.5 million statewide. And he placed his buy far earlier than his rivals. That ensured he would secure the air time he wanted, but it also tipped off his opposition to his strategy.

"He showed us his cards before he needed to," said a person familiar with Gore's buying tactics. "He made our jobs a little bit easier." Gore's campaign said the early notice allowed it to spend more efficiently by placing ads head-to-head against Bradley on certain shows while honing in on spots missed elsewhere by the former senator from New Jersey.

Observers say Bradley is saturating the air, buying time on everything from "Oprah" to "America's Dumbest Criminals" to "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" to pro basketball games. His buy also places a major emphasis on prime time--including spots during such shows as "Friends" and "Jesse," which many political buyers avoid because the audience is too young and the time is too expensive.

In polls of the Democratic race, Bradley is running far behind Gore in California. And the size of his television buy has left some with the impression that he is making one last grab for the nomination. His campaign, however, said the large buy is part of a long-term strategy.

"We always knew we were going to have the resources to be competitive," said Bradley spokeswoman Kristen Ludecke.

In the Republican presidential race, the two leading candidates are spending slightly less than the Democrats in California, even though polls show the GOP race is much more competitive.

Bush spent about $929,000 on the three affiliates in Los Angeles in the last three weeks, according to station files. The Texas governor also stuck closely to morning, midday and evening news broadcasts. He also placed spots on "Oprah."

For this weekend, he bulked up his presence on the air, purchasing a spot on prime time's "Third Rock From the Sun" and the golf tournament.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, whose ad buyer Greg Stevens is a veteran of the Bob Dole and President Bush campaigns, is expected to launch a last-minute air assault in California. He is expected to have spent about $2.3 million statewide by Tuesday.

Of the four major candidates, McCain has spent the least on the three Los Angeles network affiliates, making a purchase of about $762,000 in the last three weeks, according to station records. He purchased fewer spots and had them rotate among several broadcasts. But already at some stations, McCain's order came in so late that he was locked out of some of the programs he desired.

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