By JIM RUTENBERG
© 2008 New York Times News Service
WASHINGTON – Sen. Barack Obama has started a sustained and hard-hitting advertising campaign against Sen. John McCain in states that will be vital this fall, painting McCain in a series of commercials as disconnected from the economic struggles of the middle class.
Obama has begun the drive with little fanfare, often eschewing the modern campaign technique of unveiling new spots for the news media before they run in an effort to win added (free) attention. Obama, whose candidacy has been built in part on a promise to transcend traditional politics, is running the negative commercials on local stations even as he runs generally positive spots nationally, during prime-time coverage of the Olympics.
The negative spots reflect the sharper tone Obama has struck in recent days on the stump as he heads into his party’s nominating convention in Denver next week, and seem to address the anxiety among some Democrats that he has not answered a volley of attacks by McCain with enough force.
“If you can go quietly negative, that’s what he’s done – I think the perception is that he’s still running the positive campaign,” said Evan Tracey, president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group of TNS Media Intelligence, which monitors political advertising. “It’s a pretty smart, high-low, good cop/bad cop, strategy.”
In Philadelphia; East Lansing, Mich.; Green Bay, Wis.; and at least five other major cities, Obama is heavily showing an advertisement contrasting a statement by McCain that, “We have had a pretty good, prosperous time with low unemployment,” with appearances by everyday voters making statements like, “The prices of gas are up, the prices of milk are up.”
McCain’s statement was from a debate in January, before the economy took several turns for the worse, and did not include the senator’s acknowledgment of “a rough patch.” McCain has since run an advertisement going so far as to say “We’re worse off than we were four years ago.”
In Des Moines; Tampa, Fla.; Paducah, Ky., and at least 10 other cities, Obama is running a spot for a mock book, “Economics” by John McCain: “Support George Bush 95 percent of the time; keep spending $10 billion a month for the war in Iraq.”
On Sunday alone, Obama’s campaign spent nearly $400,000 to run those two spots more than 600 times, accounting for roughly two thirds of the commercials he ran that day, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group.
Nearly 85 percent of McCain’s 650 spots that day featured attacks against Obama, according to the service, which reports that Obama has spent $48 million on advertisements in the last two months and that McCain has spent $34 million, with the Republican National Committee spending another $3 million.
But until recently Obama had primarily run positive commercials promoting his vision, and his latest offensive is his first major volley of spots against McCain that was not in response to an attack from him or the Republican Party.
All told, Obama’s campaign has released at least six television commercials and two radio spots against McCain in the past two weeks, all of them with an overwhelmingly economic message and some exclusively tailored to issues in specific states.
The strategy is in keeping with predictions from strategists in both parties this summer that Obama would eventually press his financial advantage over McCain by running a more positive set of commercials on national broadcast television and a concurrent, harder-hitting set of spots in the states.
“It’s ‘game on, the money’s in the bank, we’re going to have a huge financial advantage, let the McCain campaign chase us around the country, if they can find us,”' said Steve McMahon, a Democratic advertising strategist.
Obama has complemented his advertising this week with a newly aggressive tone on the stump. Campaigning in California and Florida in the last few days, he has criticized McCain as challenging his patriotism, for saying Iraqis would greet Americans as “liberators” in 2003, and as embracing a negative brand of politics in general.
But Obama’s advertising has increasingly included spots that, like those from McCain, have been called negative and misleading by independent media analysts like FactCheck.org, part of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Until last week, the organization had mostly focused on misleading claims by McCain. He has consistently misrepresented the particulars of Obama’s tax and energy policies, claiming, for instance, that he would raise taxes on families making $42,000 a year – a nonbinding resolution he voted for would amount to a $15 increase on individuals with such income – and that Obama opposes nuclear energy (he does not).
But in the past week the group has criticized Obama’s spots for linking McCain to a plan by the DHL shipping company to pull out of a hub in Ohio, potentially eliminating 8,200 jobs there; for exaggerating McCain’s donations from oil executives; and for portraying his general corporate tax break as specifically tailored to oil and drug companies.
“We certainly for a while were finding a lot more in McCain’s ads to complain about,” said Brooks Jackson, the director of FactCheck.org. “That pattern certainly has shifted a bit.”
Even if Obama’s attack ads have so far not drawn much national attention – in part because of the frenzied coverage of the vice-presidential selection process – the spots have clear potential to undercut Obama’s promise to remain above the fray of what he calls “the same old Washington politics.”
Tucker Bounds, a McCain spokesman, called the strategy a “result of his inexperience.” He added, “With a partisan record that doesn’t measure up, Barack Obama’s been reduced to a sucker-punch strategy, shirking his ‘new type of politics’ in favor of a more negative campaign.”
But several Democratic strategists said the ad campaign reflected the reality of the race. “They may understand that this race is a lot tougher than they originally thought it was going to be,” said David Doak, a Democratic strategist, “and they’re reacting that way.”
Obama’s approach to the confrontational advertising is decidedly different from that of McCain. When McCain released his controversial spot linking the popularity of Obama to the celebrity of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears last month, McCain’s aides held a conference call with reporters.
In several cases Obama’s campaign has either not announced its new spots or done so only after they were noticed by news organizations. Bill Burton, a spokesman, said the campaign had not intentionally sought to hide its advertisements, noting they are available on the Obama Web site and in heavy rotation in states.
“We don’t have a secret message,” Burton said. “It’s a crystal clear one.” He stood by the accuracy of the spots.© The New York Times. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.