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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

First Set of Bush Ads Aims to Polish President's Image

Reelection effort opens with positive messages portraying his empathy and leadership in crisis.

March 04, 2004|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The president sits on a sofa with the first lady and expounds on "the entrepreneurial spirit of America." He takes the oath of office and confronts economic recession, a tanking stock market and terrorist attacks. The country emerges from its tests by relying on "freedom, faith, families and sacrifice."

Those are the story lines that President Bush's reelection team is beaming onto television screens across the country, starting today, with its first batch of paid advertisements.

The ad blitz, unveiled the day after Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts effectively clinched the Democratic president nomination, is meant to bolster the image of a Republican incumbent bruised by opposition attacks.

It portrays Bush as empathetic to the jobless and forceful on the economy -- not, as Democrats claim, indifferent and ineffective. And it seeks to reassure viewers that the country has "steady leadership in times of change," responding to Kerry's frequent charge that Bush administration policies are "reckless, arrogant, inept and ideological."

"We have a whole series of things we're going to correct that have been said over the last six months," said Matthew Dowd, a Bush-Cheney strategist, at campaign headquarters in Arlington, Va.

Bush-Cheney officials would not say how much they're spending on the ads. But Democratic media trackers believe the expenditure could exceed $7 million.

The ads will be seen on several national cable channels, including CNN, MSNBC, ESPN and Fox News Channel, and on broadcast channels in more than a dozen states expected to prove key to the election's outcome. While the campaign would not provide a list, the states are likely to include Florida, Michigan and Ohio.

Even as the president's ads are launched, he is facing fresh criticism in TV spots funded by an opposition group called MoveOn.org Voter Fund. The ads take Bush to task for a proposal to cut overtime pay for certain workers and for saddling future generations with a larger national debt.

Wes Boyd, who leads the group, said the anti-Bush ads would air in 17 states. Others allied with Democrats, including a group known as the Media Fund, were preparing to jump into the fray within weeks.

The Kerry campaign had no immediate plans to launch its own commercials, in part because of money problems.

"Kerry is still relatively unknown across much of the country," said one senior Democratic strategist. "He shouldn't wait too long to begin to define himself. But ... it will take a few weeks before he has enough money to make some significant buys."

The four Bush ads were shown to reporters Wednesday at campaign headquarters. Each has its own title: "Lead" is a minute long; "Tested" and "Safer, Stronger" are 30 seconds each.

The latter was also shown in a Spanish-language version, with the president declaring, "Soy George W. Bush y aprobe este mensaje."

Statements by candidates that they personally approved the message are now required by federal law.

An aide said the Spanish-language ad would air in Arizona, New Mexico and Miami.

The 60-second spot, narrated by Bush and his wife, Laura, was filmed last month in the White House. Mark McKinnon, the president's top media advisor, told reporters the first couple spoke without a script.

"Americans are hard-working, decent, generous people," the president declares in the ad. "I'm optimistic about America, because I believe in the people of America."

The spot begins with an image of a waitress opening up a diner in the early morning and shifts to the president working in the Oval Office. There are pictures of a businessman on a cellphone, a businesswoman, hard-hatted construction workers, a welder, a schoolteacher, a family.

In "Safer, Stronger," the campaign asserts that Bush inherited problems and surmounted them. "January 2001," reads text on the screen as a picture is shown of Bush taking the oath of office. "The challenge: An economy in recession. A stock market in decline. A dot-com boom gone bust."

One of the script's assertions is open to dispute -- an authoritative panel of economists dates the start of the recession to March 2001, weeks after the inauguration. It ended in November that year.

The issue of the recession's timing is politically sensitive because Democrats claim that former President Clinton was a successful steward of the economy. But Terry Holt, a Bush-Cheney spokesman, said the campaign meant only to say that Bush faced a daunting set of problems soon after he took office.

The ad also shows the skeletal remains of a building after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, a potent image that Democrats will scrutinize closely for signs of exploitation of the national tragedy. "Today, America is turning the corner," text on the screen reads.

Analysts who viewed the ads Wednesday gave them positive reviews.

"Two images I thought were effective," said Kenneth Goldstein, a political ad expert at the University of Wisconsin. "The shot of him sitting next to Laura Bush -- those are very helpful. With Laura Bush sitting there, it's sort of hard to hate him, right? And listen, they have to talk about 9/11, and I think they did it well."

Bill Carrick, a Democratic media strategist, said: "They capture one thing that is very important for an incumbent president. They maintain a level of dignity and an aura of being above the fray."

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