Early political attacks overshadowed by news events

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The first rule of political marketing: Advertise early and often. But Beltway insiders are questioning whether you can advertise too early in a political race-especially when political news events get in the way.

With the election still eight months away, the Bush-Cheney campaign claimed victory for its controversial spots showing Sept. 11 imagery, saying the effort converted swing voters.

It also took advantage of its heaping $200 million war chest to launch an attack on Democratic nominee-in-waiting Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., with two ads last week. One featured the president discussing economic policies he put in place, and the other, in both English and Spanish,called Mr. Kerry's economic record "troubling" while claiming his tax plan would raise taxes by $900 billion.

`man of mystery'

The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, continued to pummel Mr. Kerry as "an international man of mystery." MoveOn.org and the Media Fund lobbed back with anti-Bush ads.

"There is little question that ads that run eight months before an election are not as effective as those run one month before," said Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. But he added that "John Kerry is a blank slate for most people. It's a race to define John Kerry and fill in the slate. "

"It's worth trying to define Kerry early, at a time when most voters know little about him," said Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "But the needle has moved very little on Kerry and none at all on Bush," he added. "Their advertising effort is countered by the daily news and Kerry et al's competing ads."

Indeed, the Democrats said any positive effect was outweighed by former Bush security adviser Richard Clarke testifying before Congress that the president hadn't taken the threat of terrorism seriously.

"Arguably, any gains the Bush team may have made with their strong against terrorism claims were wiped away entirely after the events of this week," said Jano Cabrera, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.

Likewise, Mr. Ornstein said the Bush campaign's efforts to define Mr. Kerry as vacillating, flip-flopping and weak on security were obscured by Mr. Clarke's testimony.

`impossible to say'

"With a little over eight months to go before November, it is almost impossible to say with a straight face anything about the definitive effects of this early advertising," DNC's Mr. Cabrera said.

MoveOn, a liberal group, also seized on the Clarke news with an ad from its political action committee that features his congressional testimony and the theme "George Bush, a failure in leadership."

But Mark McKinnon, head of Bush's Maverick Media team, said "focus groups done after the ads [using Sept. 11 imagery] aired registered almost unanimous approval among swing voters and internal poll showed the President's favorable rating improved by four to five percentage points in spots where the ads ran."

reinforcing the base

Campaign strategist Matthew Dowd Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd said the early ads reinvigorated Bush supporters by producing a feeling that the campaign had turned the corner, and helped create a negative impression of Mr. Kerry that the campaign hopes will stick. "It is stopping any momentum [Kerry] might have had," he said.

Some Democratic groups are worried enough about early Bush ads to counter them. Sarah Leonard, a spokesman for the Media Fund, said it hopes to raise $50 million to air ads through August (its current spot suggests President Bush has cost America jobs).

Frank Luntz, CEO of Luntz Research, said because 85% of voters have already made up their minds and it could be months before the remainder makes a decision, voters in target states will be barraged as the warring factions rely heavily on ads.

"Three-quarters of America won't know that there is a campaign," he said, "and one quarter will think it's World War III."

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