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Candidates Hold Back on Ads, Bask in a Spree of News Coverage

August 30, 2003|Mitchell Landsberg and Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writers

With news coverage that verges on all-recall, all-the-time, candidates in California's race for governor are making a remarkable discovery: Political advertising, the lifeblood of most statewide campaigns, simply isn't as important in this race as it usually is.

As a result, campaign managers appear to be holding back on early purchases of TV and radio time and to be looking for ways to take advantage of the flood of what political consultants call "free media" or "earned media" -- euphemisms for the coverage that appears in newspapers and magazines, on radio and TV.

"No one has any experience in an environment like this one," said one advisor to a major candidate. "We're all trying to figure it out as we go along."

The conventional wisdom in a California gubernatorial campaign is that a candidate needs to spend $1.5 million to $2.5 million a week on television and radio advertising. So far, according to one political consultant who tracks such purchases, only Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante has booked TV time that adds up to that much -- and only for the final three weeks of the campaign.

The only major statewide TV ad campaign that has aired so far was produced for Arnold Schwarzenegger, but even that amounted only to a relatively modest $1.5 million over 10 days.

Some political consultants say they expect to spend as much on advertising as they can, but will be limited by the shortness of the campaign.

"I think there will be less spent because there is less time to raise it, pure and simply," said Garry South, top strategist to Gov. Gray Davis. "If it were possible for this to have been set a year, or even six to nine months beyond the qualification of it, I guarantee you that the spending would be immense."

But others suggest that the flood of news coverage will make campaigns less reliant on advertising.

"The information voters receive about candidates in a California governor's race, normally, is about 70% paid advertising and 30% from other sources. This could be entirely the reverse," said Don Sipple, a veteran Republican advertising consultant who is working for Schwarzenegger.

Schwarzenegger, Bustamante and state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) are finding that this campaign is the political equivalent of big-wave surfing. As the candidates to replace Davis who have the highest ratings in opinion polls, they can ride, if they choose, a news tsunami from morning to night, giving them almost unlimited, free access to voters. The trick, strategists say, is to stay in control and keep the wave from crushing them.

Even candidates who are faring less well in opinion polls have found easy access to the airwaves.

"I have been on television every day, and our events have been well covered," said Arriana Huffington, the independent candidate who entered the race well known, but with no party organization behind her. "It has definitely benefited my campaign because it means I can reach a much larger audience than I could unless I was willing or able to spend tens of millions of dollars."

Huffington has mounted a modest TV ad campaign, buying an estimated $50,000 to $60,000 worth of commercials in Los Angeles and San Francisco. So far, however, neither the paid nor the unpaid media have lifted her past single digits in pre-election polls.

The contrast with a typical California campaign is stark. In the past, in the words of Bill Carrick, a veteran Democratic consultant, a California campaign consisted of "a candidate locked up in a room raising money to put into ads."

Sean Walsh, a consultant to Schwarzenegger's campaign who has worked for numerous Republican candidates in the past, said an old joke among California political operatives was that the only way a candidate could get onto local TV news was to be pursued in a police car chase.

Not this time around. In this race, Walsh said, candidates are in a position that they "haven't been in ... at least since Ronald Reagan was governor."

Schwarzenegger has been at the center of the phenomenon and to some extent is responsible for it. It seems doubtful that entertainment magazines and the foreign press would be taking such an intense interest in California politics without him. One of the campaign's biggest challenges, Walsh said, has been managing the flood of requests for the actor's time.

"Paid media is always going to be important in a state of this size," said Dan Schnur, a consultant to Republican candidate Peter V. Ueberroth. "But proportionately, the impact of the news media is going to be much greater over the next few weeks than we see in most California races."

The candidate who so far appears to have benefited most from the intense interest is McClintock, a Republican who brought neither fame nor vast fortune to the race, but who has catapulted to a solid third-place standing in most polls, in part because of the willingness of TV and radio programmers to put him on as Schwarzenegger's chief conservative rival.

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