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Campaign Ads: The Final Round

By David Paul Kuhn, chief political writer

As Election 2004 draws to a close, the presidential candidates and the independent groups supporting them are using their final television ads to make their most emotional appeals of the campaign season.


– and possibly last – ad shows President Bush standing on the Republican convention floor. "These four years have brought moments I could not foresee," he says. "I've learned firsthand that ordering Americans into battle is the hardest decision, even when it is right."

As he continues – "I have returned the salute of wounded soldiers who say they were just doing their job" – a softened image flashes of a proud veteran on the convention floor, framed in saturated American flags.

The ad is an attempt to counteract the perception that Mr. Bush is arrogant and refuses to own up to his mistakes. Though he is not contrite, Mr. Bush is humanized, a commander in chief doing his best to protect the people in perilous times.


– called "Heroes" – attempts to compensate for negative perceptions of Sen. John Kerry as a pessimist who undercuts U.S. soldiers in Iraq through his unrelenting criticism of Mr. Bush's handling of the war effort.

"Our soldiers fighting in Iraq are heroes, their families have earned our thanks and our support," says Kerry, as a Latino solider in uniform and his bride are seen on screen.

The ad continues: "As we see the deepening crisis and chaos in Iraq, as we choose a new commander in chief, and a fresh start, we will always support and honor those who serve." As Kerry speaks, an image of a young man raising a flag fades to a field at twilight, with a small American flag waving.

"The last two weeks are always heavy," says Kenneth Goldstein, a political science professor who directs the University of Wisconsin's political advertising project. "There is always lots of clutter, the campaigns are always desperate to shine through in some fundamental way and we know from lots of good geeky political science research that ads that are able to stimulate emotions are more likely to be effective."

Independent political groups are going even further than the campaigns in playing to voters' emotions.

In the final stretch, a handful of 527 groups – independent organizations named for their tax identification number – are spending heavily on ads that attempt to do what both campaigns believe is the best strategy to reach undecided voters: go for the gut.

A recent ad from the conservative

uses the events of Sept. 11, 2001 to portray President Bush as a strong leader and father figure. The president is seen embracing Ashley Faulkner, a teenager whose mother was killed in the World Trade Center attacks.

Near the end of the advertisement, Ashley says, "He's the most powerful man in the world, and all he wants to do is make sure I'm safe." As a slow rhythm follows, a picture of a fireman who was also embraced by Mr. Bush is shown.

Conversely, the liberal

uses the families of soldiers killed in Iraq to highlight what it considers Mr. Bush's bungled handling of the war.

"My brother died in Baghdad on April 29th. I watched President Bush make a joke, looking around for weapons of mass destruction," says Brooke Campbell in a recent MoveOn ad.

Campbell's brother died 36 days after Mr. Bush made a controversial attempt at levity about still-unfound weapons of mass destruction during a Washington press event.

"My brother died looking for weapons of mass destruction," Campbell says in the ad.

"Showing President Bush joking around at the White House Correspondents Dinner, and then saying, 'My brother is killed,' that's a pretty heavy duty ad and that's out of the ordinary," Goldstein says. "I can't remember an ad that I've seen in recent years that spoke that personally on an issue and spoke that directly on a candidate."

These aren't the first controversial 527 ads of the campaigns. Most notable was the conservative Swift Boat Veterans For Truth campaign, which set off a tinderbox of press attention in August for its controversial attacks on John Kerry's war record.

"I always ask my audience to name one ad. They all name the Swift Boat ad. I say name a second ad, and they always have trouble," Goldstein says. "Maybe after this last week, they won't have trouble anymore."

Liberal 527 groups have raised $140 million during the campaign while similar conservative groups have raised $75 million. The Kerry camp is spending $10 million on its final buys this week, including the "Heroes" ad. The Bush-Cheney campaign closely guards its advertising spending.

In total, there have been more than 700,000 spots aired costing well over a half-billion dollars this political campaign season, says Goldstein.

Both presidential campaigns are focusing on a select few swing state market for their closing barrage of ads. The top five media markets by overall number of presidential spots aired are Miami, Albuquerque, Reno, Tampa and Green Bay.

Ranked from September 24 to October 7, the Nielsen Monitor-Plus and the Wisconsin Advertising Project report that the next three top markets are all in Ohio: Cleveland, Toledo and Columbus, respectively.

In early March, President Bush's first campaign ads showed images of firefighters at New York City's Ground Zero. Democrats decried the ads as an attempt to capitalize on the Sept. 11 attacks. Mr. Bush backed off and the ads were dropped.

Yet throughout this election, and specifically of late, both campaigns have had one prevailing advertising theme: national security.

"Comparing it to 2000, the issues are more important now. There is a war in Iraq now. There was a 9/11," Goldstein says. "You can speak about those things. Looking back at 2000, it is hard to have a really hard hitting ad about a lockbox."

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