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Ad Wars Over Iowa

Beth Lester of the CBS News Political Unit reports on campaign advertising in the final days before the Iowa caucus.



With just four days until the Iowa caucus, the ad war in the state is really heating up. Early in the week, both Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt went on the air with negative ads. By the end of the week, the two campaigns announced the negative spots would be replaced with more positive ones. As the ad strategies change daily, all four major campaigns are buying ad time heavily.

As Dean and Gephardt duke it out, both campaigns rolled out ads criticizing the other by name. On Tuesday, Dean released an ad entitled "War" that tied his opponents to pro-Iraq war views. Determined that if "someone throws an elbow, we'll throw one back," as Gephardt press secretary Erik Smith put it to CBS News on Thursday, the Gephardt campaign countered with an ad called "Know" that attacked Dean's overall record. While Dean deputy press secretary Jay Carson said the ads "show that Gephardt is getting more desperate and negative by the day," the strategy changed overnight.

On Friday, both campaigns decided to end the caucus fracas the traditional way: with positive ads. The Dean campaign stopped "War," replacing it with a spot called "Power." The Gephardt campaign responded in kind, taking "Know" off the air and will finish the campaign running a positive ad called "Together."

Gephardt campaign manager Steve Murphy told reporters Friday, "We never had any intention of running a comparative/negative ad. We only did so because Howard Dean did."

Clearly, there is little love lost between the two campaigns over the air war.

Not to be forgotten in the midst of the negative fire between Dean and Gephardt, the campaigns of Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards have also been on-air all week, but with only positive messages. The Kerry team is running what a campaign aide tells CBS News is a "significant, statewide" buy, including one ad featuring Christie Vilsack, the wife of popular Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack. Iowa's first lady has endorsed Kerry and the campaign is hoping some support for the governor, who has not endorsed anyone, will rub off on Kerry.

The Edwards campaign is touting the North Carolina senator's positive image as well, with two ads focusing on his populist, relentlessly upbeat message. As Edwards communications director David Ginsberg said, "We're confident that voters will reject sniping by other Democrats" and look to Edwards' positive message. And the decision to stay upbeat seems to be working well in Iowa: the Des Moines Register's surprise endorsement of Edwards cited his "positive, optimistic campaigns." No wonder Edwards is staying away from attack ads.

Although the campaigns refuse to release the size of their ad buys, it is clear that the pace is incredible. A new study by the Wisconsin Advertising Project, which tracks political advertising on television, shows that the candidates had spent $8.7 million on ads in Iowa during 2003 and the first nine days of 2004. Dean and groups affiliated with him have spent $2.8 million, while the Gephardt campaign and its backers have anted up $2.3 million so far. The Kerry and Edwards campaigns have spent a combined $3.6 million. According to the Project's director, Ken Goldstein, "When all is said and aired in Iowa, the Democratic presidential candidates will have spent more than $100 per caucus voter on TV alone."

As the caucuses enter their final days, it is not clear how the various ad strategies will affect the Iowa endgame. Typically, Iowans dislike negative politics and the two candidates on the move this week, Kerry and Edwards, were the ones sticking to positive messages. Sen. Tom Harkin, who has endorsed Dean, encouraged the campaigns to return to a positive message earlier this week, and Dean and Gephardt appear to have heeded that advice. Gephardt campaign manager Murphy believes Dean decided to pull his negative ad because it "backfired," but Carson, the Dean spokesman, said their ad was "pointing out a legitimate factual difference."

After the ads play over and over this weekend, Monday's caucus goers will be the ones to determine who guessed correctly about advertising in Iowa.

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