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Both Campaigns Scrambling for Votes--and for TV Ad Slots

Media: Bush and Gore backers are preparing a blizzard of commercials, with the volume expected to be about even on both sides. But air time is scarce.


The carefully scripted national conventions are history. The camera-ready presidential debates are in the can. In the era of made-for-TV politics, there's one more tradition remaining: the final ad blitz.

The two major candidates and their parties expect to be closely matched on television airwaves in the last two weeks, with each side spending about $20 million. That's a reverse from the last two weeks, when Democrats were outspent 2 to 1 in television advertising at a time when they slipped in the polls.

From now on, "it's relatively close," said Terry Holt, spokesman for the Republican Party.

Media strategists for Al Gore and George W. Bush are also fighting the campaign advertising war with markedly different approaches in the closing weeks of the race. Bush and the GOP are airing perhaps six ads across a wide field of states while Gore and the Democrats are mixing at least 11 different commercials among a similar list of markets.

In most of the 22 states it has targeted, the Republican Party is pouring money behind two ads released Tuesday that criticize Gore as an untrustworthy big spender. Democrats, on the other hand, are broadcasting in 21 states with ads that are specifically written for competitive states such as Florida, West Virginia, Tennessee and Nevada.

Each Campaign Hitting on Basic Themes

In the closing weeks, each side will focus on one or two basic themes. The vice president's campaign will roll out a series of ads highlighting the nation's economic prosperity and make the case that the Texas governor would jeopardize it. Bush will emphasize his leadership and portray Gore as the threat to future growth.

Those themes will be pounded home as the two sides empty their bank accounts for giant television buys.

The Republican Party is expected to spend at least $6 million a week, with the Bush campaign matching it. In California, Republicans have been spending about $1.5 million a week. Gore will spend about $6.4 million on TV this week, with the Democrats increasing their weekly cash outlay to more than $4.6 million.

The Republican budget for advertising will be limited because the airwaves are too saturated with local, state and national candidate ads for the GOP to spend all of its money on television. The Republican Party reported $45 million to spend in the last month of the campaign--on everything from voter mobilization to advertising--compared with the Democratic Party's $25 million.

"They may have more money than God, but there's only 500 [television rating] points that will get on the air," said Jennifer Backus, spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee.

Both sides will also broaden the reach of their ads, reflecting an unusually tight race where the candidates are still close in several critical states.

In the 10 days ending Oct. 18, 50% of the two sides' combined spending went to just five states: Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington, according to the tracking firm Campaign Media Analysis Group. In those five states, which account for 98 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win, the two candidates are separated by no more than 4 percentage points in the most recent polls.

Republicans recently expanded their advertising from 17 states to 22, adding several that have gone Democratic in the past, such as California, Minnesota, Nevada, Tennessee, Vermont and West Virginia. Democrats and the vice president, who at one point retreated on ad buys to 15 states, this week unfurled their widest map of the year. They plan to be on the air in 21 states later this week, including in some of the same party strongholds.

That the map includes many Democratic-leaning states suggests Gore is on the defensive, with a key exception: Florida, a must-win state for Bush, where the Texas governor is running even despite outspending the Democrats 3 to 1 for several weeks.

An ad by the Democratic National Committee airing there warns of pollution in Texas waterways, then says, "Imagine Bush's Texas record in Florida's Everglades." Democrats are about to rotate in a new ad on Social Security to appeal to the state's large senior population.

Record Use of Targeted Approach

Customizing ads to air in certain media markets isn't a new technique, but the Democrats' effort this year marks the widest use of so-called selective audience appeals in the history of political ads, according to experts.

"I think we've seen many more targeted appeals than what we've seen in the past," said Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University. "And I think the reason is it's no longer a national campaign but a bunch of state and local races. . . . The strategy is dictated by the electoral college. We'll see if it's a winning strategy or not."

The approach may be a natural outgrowth of recent changes in the way presidential campaigns purchase their advertising.

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