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Democrats blitz Iowa with campaign ads. But will the caucuses matter?

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A recent study shows that the 2004 Democratic candidates for the presidential nomination are spending three times as much on television ads in Iowa this year as last time around, in 1999. Opinions vary as to how important the Iowa caucuses actually are (Wesley Clark and Joseph Lieberman clearly thought it wouldn’t hurt them to skip the vote); but in a crowded field the leading candidates aren’t leaving anything to chance.

Why the big push? Clearly whoever wins Iowa will gain a big jump in momentum, but the caucuses are more important for some candidates than others. Dick Gephardt, who’s in a tight race in Iowa with Howard Dean, has to win to stay in the race. Dean, if he won, would solidify his status as presumptive nominee, but it wouldn’t kill him to lose, especially as he seems already to have New Hampshire in the bag. “Howard’s strategy is to knock me out in Iowa and knock Kerry out in New Hampshire,” says Gephardt, who won the state when he ran for president in 1988. “If that happens, it’s over.”

But a Dean slip-up, by stalling his momentum, could be good Kerry and Edwards, so long as they put in a strong showing; and for Lieberman and Clark, who by opting out avoid the risk of a humiliating defeat. So, while Iowa isn’t necessarily decisive for anyone but Gephardt, it’s psychologically and strategically important for everyone else.

James W. Pindell, managing editor and political reporter, talks about what to expect from Iowa and New Hampshire:

“The truth is that Iowa and New Hampshire really do more to winnow down the field of candidates than they do in selecting presidents. Up until 1992, though, NH did have an unblemished record to picking the eventual party nominee. Obviously that year Bill Clinton came in second as the “comeback kid”, and then in 2000 John McCain came in first in the primary, but did not win the nomination as we know. As far as being an ultimate bellweather for the general election look to NH to be a battleground. It has voted for the general election winner as far back as I can remember.”

So far, Dean has run the most ads, spending about $2.8 million on about 7,000 spots. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina was second with $2.2 million for more than 5,300 ads. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts ranked third, spending $1.8 million, and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri came in fourth at $900,000.

A Zogby poll shows that the advertising may be working; Dean has a slight lead over the other candidates in Iowa. A December 1-2 poll shows Dean with 26% of Iowa support to Dick Gephardt’s 22%.

The impact of ads on voters is well documented—TV ads are the most effective and simple way to reach voters.
“In Des Moines, people will tell you they are sick of ads – but ads still count,” Ken Goldstein, lead researcher of the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project, the group that studied the campaign advertising.

Figures released last week by the research group show that 12,700 television spots have run in Iowa so far, roughly five times as many as both parties had run as of Nov. 30 in the Iowa presidential contest four years ago.

The University of Wisconsin research group also pointed out a shift in priorities. In 1999, advertising in New Hampshire was twice that of Iowa, whereas now, the situation is reversed. Some guess that the reason why is because while Dean has a pretty daunting lead in New Hampshire. At last count, Dean was polling 42 percent, 30 points ahead of second-placed Kerry.

Not surprisingly, many of the candidates’ ads beat up on Dean.
One recent ad by Lieberman criticizes Dean for not being forthcoming with records from his gubernertorial years. The ad will run in New Hampshire in an attempt to jumpstart Lieberman’s campaign. Another, airing in Iowa, comes from a progressive group criticizing Dean’s gun control record.

Republicans, too, are running ads criticizing Dean. Time suggests that Republican ads attacking Dean might mean the GOP already views the race as a contest just between Bush and Dean.

One recent ad by The Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy organization, attempts to paint Dean as fiscally and economically irresponsible, favoring tax increases on par with so-called tax hikers (and presidential losers) George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Dukakis. In one ad, they claim Dean will raise taxes on an average family (earning $40,000 a year with 4 kids) by more than $1,900 per year if he repeals Bush’s tax cuts.

Another attack ad, the first GOP ad to run in the 2004 campaign, emphasized President Bush’s struggle to defeat terrorism. Democrats cringed at the implication behind the line, “people are attacking the president for attacking the terrorists,” a clear reference to the consistently anti-war Dean.

Bush still leads all of the potential presidential nominees in head-to-head polls, but a recent poll in Florida showed Dean only 8 points behind (though he has done little campaigning there). Perhaps the Republican use of ads, despite the fact that Bush hasn’t even formally declared his candidacy, means that they are a little scared of what’s to come. Or not. One view is that Republicans want Dean to win the nomination, and they know there’s no better way to motivate his supporters than to have George Bush beat up on him. With each new attack, says Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi, donations to Dean increase. Which is good news for Dean — and maybe good news for Bush, too.


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