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Davis Tailors His Barrage of TV Spots

Governor has swamped Simon with $30-million ad budget, triple his rival's spending.

October 27, 2002|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

Garry South grinned as he scrolled down page after page of television shows on his computer screen: "Frasier," "Everybody Loves Raymond," "60 Minutes II." South, chief architect of the Gray Davis reelection campaign, was scanning a log showing where television ads had been run by the governor and his Republican challenger, Bill Simon Jr.

On one day in August, it showed, a Davis spot depicting Simon as a shady businessman had run at least 178 times.

That same day, Simon broadcast not a single ad.

Since June, the Democratic governor has swamped his rival with more than $30 million in television ads, roughly triple what Simon has spent on TV. But that is just one of the distinctions in how the campaigns have waged their most public battle.

Television ads are the weapon of choice in California elections, the sole strategic imperative big and broad enough to capture the attention of the state's 15 million registered voters.

For Davis, that has meant targeting each of California's diverse voting blocs with a precisely choreographed sequence of TV spots, market-tested by a tightknit ad team with cash at its disposal.

For Simon, it has meant scrambling, at times, for the money to buy even a minimal presence on the air, even as two teams of ad-makers clash over who has the candidate's permission to buy time on TV stations.

The sophistication of the Davis ad strategy is partly a luxury of the governor's huge financial edge over Simon.

From June to mid-October, Davis spots aired more than 26,000 times in the state's five biggest media markets; Simon's ran fewer than 5,000, according to the governor's ad tracking service.

The Davis ad budget has grown steadily to more than $3 million a week -- roughly twice the usual weekly cost needed to gain voters' attention. It will hit $4 million for the final week, South said. Davis has been able to buy 30-second spots on the World Series and top-rated prime-time shows. In Los Angeles last week, those included NBC's "ER" ($52,250) and "Friends" ($47,500).

Simon, who has loaned his campaign $5.25 million in recent weeks to keep it from going broke, has put the bulk of his ads on less expensive news shows, which are also saturated with Davis spots. Among Simon's sparse prime-time buys in Los Angeles this month have been 30-second spots on NBC's "Law & Order" ($28,500) and CBS' "60 Minutes" ($18,000). Simon spokesmen said he, too, has run spots during the World Series, but only outside Los Angeles.

Ed Rollins, senior consultant to Simon, said his campaign was essentially "limping" to election day. Given the Davis attack ads and Simon's "stumbles and the missteps," donors were "not investing as heavily as we would have hoped," he said.

Beyond the money shortage, Simon's ad effort has also been hampered by staff turmoil. Republican leaders in Washington were so put off by his early TV spots that they forced him to replace media strategist Sal Russo, according to four party sources.

Over the summer, Russo repeatedly took Simon spots off the air before large numbers of voters had seen them. That churn angered Republican leaders -- and struck Davis advisors as "idiotic," as South put it.

"You might as well be taking cash and throwing it out the window," South said. "You're wasting the money."

National GOP leaders also disliked Russo's ads on Davis' aggressive fund-raising. The party threatened to withhold Republican National Committee money unless Simon bounced Russo, the sources said. So Simon hired Larry McCarthy, a Washington media consultant, to produce the rest of the ads and buy time from TV stations.

But the transition has been rough. Russo's Sacramento firm, which stood to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in commissions on Simon's ad buys, told TV stations that it remained Simon's only ad buyer. Rollins, Simon's senior consultant, then told the stations in a terse letter that McCarthy's ad buyer was the only one authorized to place the campaign's commercials.

"Does the RNC like Larry more than me? I'm sure they do," Russo said. "I'm not a Washington insider."

In the end, McCarthy prevailed as the ad guru, but Russo remains a top Simon advisor.

Although the Davis campaign tracks every spot Simon runs in big broadcast markets, advisors to the GOP candidate say they try nonetheless to keep their rival off guard. For that reason, Simon's campaign has declined to provide details on its ad strategy.

At times, the Simon campaign has made inaccurate public statements about its ads. In an Aug. 21 press release, Russo said the campaign would "remain on the air for the remainder of the election." But Simon later pulled all of his ads -- and kept them off the air for weeks.

In contrast to the Simon teams, Davis has stuck with the same group that propelled him to victory in 1998. The main players are South, pollster Paul Maslin, and media consultants David Doak and Tom O'Donnell.

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