GOP Strategists Say McCain Using Right Tactic, Wrong Ads

Attacks Are Fine, but Current Targets Are Irrelevant

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John McCain and Rick Davis
John McCain and Rick Davis Credit: Charles Dharapak
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WASHINGTON ( -- With poll numbers suggesting that Sen. John McCain's attack advertising on his rival Sen. Barack Obama is backfiring, some Republican advertising people and strategists on and off Madison Avenue are wondering if the McCain campaign is using the right tactic but the wrong attack ads.

While all defend the effectiveness of negative ads, the critics say the McCain campaign may be off target in focusing the last two weeks on one-time terrorist Bill Ayers and some other issues, instead of on whether Mr. Obama has sufficient experience and knowledge to lead the country at a time when terror threats remain.

"I don't really think they have attacked the issues as much as needed. I don't think McCain has been as firm as he could be," said Jim Ferguson, a partner in JimbobKrause, Dallas, and in 2000 a member of the Bush campaign's Maverick Media ad team.

Mr. Ferguson, a longtime Republican, said he is considering supporting Mr. Obama himself.

"People are not talking about McCain in the circles I run in. It's the Barack Obama bandwagon. I'm on Facebook and nobody is talking about McCain. I don't think the McCain campaign gets it" about the importance of social networking sites.

Mr. Ferguson said the McCain campaign has an obvious attack line. "I think that Barack Obama is not equipped to handle the foreign policy and the economy. He's not even filled out his first term [in the Senate] and he's already running for the [presidency].

"I would have attacked his record. Who is this guy, what does he really stand for? How could he handle the economy ... protect this country? People are looking at one thing: What is he going to do for me? How are you going to protect me and my retirement and the economy?"

There's also been a hue and cry on right-wing blogs for McCain to drop the Ayers attacks and to explicitly tie Obama to the problems with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The Palin problem
Mr. Ferguson said the advertising isn't the campaign's only issue and pointed to Mr. McCain's choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. In essence, she has made it almost impossible for Mr. McCain to play what was once his trump card: experience.

"The guy is not a kid and [Ms. Palin] could be the next president of the United States?" Mr. Ferguson said. "I have a problem with that. I'm a lifelong Republican, and I'd rather have Joe Biden as vice president. To a certain extent. Barack Obama picked what is best for the country as opposed to what would get him more votes."

Tom Messner, a partner at Messner Euro RSCG and another Madison Avenue exec who has worked in GOP presidential campaigns, said he has been surprised the McCain campaign didn't make more of Mr. Obama's decision to not take federal financing -- an issue Mr. McCain did mention during the final presidential debate.

"It has surprised me that McCain has not [pushed that issue] given it is the first time in history somebody actually broke a promise before he was elected," said Mr. Messner, who once talked to the McCain campaign about helping in advertising.

He said the Obama campaign has an advantage in that it represents something new.

"In advertising, the new always takes precedence over the old ... whether it's cars or detergents or candidates. Thus no matter what McCain says and does, he is the old and Obama is the new. New Tide. New Clairol. Pontiac, all new for 2008."

Mr. Messner continued: "If McCain wants to do advertising between now and election day that has a chance of success -- he must show and demonstrate the differences between him and Obama, clearly and dispassionately. Otherwise all he is doing day in and day out is showing the old versus the new to his disadvantage, as always.

John Feehery, a GOP consultant in Washington, also questioned the McCain campaign's ads.

It's the economy, stupid
The celebrity ad that compared Mr. Obama to Paris Hilton and Brittney Spears was one of the few effective ads run by the campaign, he said. "It drove the news coverage." But aside from that and very few other spots, "he hasn't connected to peoples' bigger concerns about the economy. I just don't believe they have been effective on points. They are down 20 points on the issue of taxes. That should be a Republican issue." He also called the current crop of attack ads "not relevant. It's not having an impact on the target audience."

A veteran GOP strategist, who asked his name not be used, was far more critical of the advertising. He said the celebrity ad focus during the summer may have generated news and attention, but it left the campaign ill equipped for the fall. "If they had just spent the summer talking about the economy instead of Paris Hilton," he said.

He also said the McCain campaign didn't have a clear, consistent argument, jumping as it did from messages about experience, celebrity, the surge, Obama raising taxes and Mr. Ayers. "What is the link that ties this all together? There is no coherent argument here. ... The problem is how [the McCain campaign] views McCain and Obama. It's like they are trying to sell hamburgers to vegetarians by saying these people should eat meat."

He also cited the selection of Ms. Palin as a problem, calling it a "disaster" and a "stunt" and that she "is not equipped to be president." He, too, said the selection made it harder for Mr. McCain to use the experience card in his advertising.

Some support for current strategy
Harold Kaplan, the former Y&R creative who wrote some of the videos for the Republican National Convention and has worked on a number of presidential campaigns including that of President Bush, suggested that media reports about the ads backfiring, based on polling data, are suspect.

"I don't believe one word [that the ads aren't working]," he said. "You can always tell if they are working if you see the opposing candidate mounting a defense. I'm seeing that Obama has been answering the charge, so it must be hurting him."

The McCain ad team is headed by Fred Davis of Strategic Perception, Hollywood, Calif., and Mr. Davis disputed any suggestion the campaign's ads are backfiring. Instead, he said the campaign had been working effectively until the nation's economic woes significantly altered the landscape. Now, the team is battling back in the face of an unprecedented spending advantage by the Obama campaign.

"The Paris Hilton ads dramatically changed the polls, not just the attention," he said. "They were exactly the right move. The convention was also exactly the right move. What happened is we had this little problem that the economy collapsed and George Bush had an 'R' after his name, and so does John McCain.

"We're not running against an opponent named Barack Obama. He's just a man fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. Our opponent is an unprecedented 95% wrong-direction mood in the country. John McCain has beaten that mood time and time again over the last two years. We are on the way back up now."