Iowa Ad Wars

Another week on the campaign trail and two debates later we find ourselves in a much transformed Republican primary race. Nationally Rudy Giuliani’s lead has slid from the mid-teens to low single digits in most polls as Mike Huckabee has surged past Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney and John McCain into second place. Even more startling, Huckabee in the poll (RCP) averages leads in Iowa by over 13 points, despite having spent just a fraction of the time and money that Romney has expended. He is also ahead in the RCP averages in South Carolina by almost 8 points. In addition, a new Strategic Vision poll from Georgia (a February 5 state) shows Hucakbee with a three point lead over Thompson.

Some things have remained fairly constant. Giuliani enjoys an RCP average lead of more than 15 points in Florida and healthy margins in February 5 states like California, New Jersey and New York. In New Hampshire Romney holds a RCP average led of 13 points, but his lead has narrowed in recent polls as McCain has risen to second.

The outline of the battlefield is clear: Huckabee hopes to halt Romney in his tracks in Iowa, crushing his early state offensive. McCain and Giuliani plan to mop up what is left of Romney’s offensive in New Hampshire and march on to friendlier ground in Michigan (for both) and Florida  (for Giuliani) before heading into February 5. Romney is trying to rescue Iowa, hold his ground in New Hampshire and survive as the electable alternative to Giuliani on February 5. Thompson would like his ticket out of Iowa to fight another day in South Carolina and Florida as the alternative to Giuliani. The permutations are now endless and the pundits have conceded we indeed have a five man race in which any of them could win.

To accompany the ground game in each state is the air war conducted on radio and TV. The ads — most if not all can be seen in the internet — are targeted to individual states’ primary voters and caucus-goers. 

Mitt Romney’s latest in Iowa is a “comparative” ad, taking Huckabee to task for his support of scholarships and in state tuition for children of illegal aliens. In famously “nice” Iowa, the ad starts ever so gently by commending Huckabee as a good family man but goes on to contrast the two on this issue. The ad does not mention “sanctuary cities” which now have become a dicey topic for Romney after his “Sanctuary Mansion” issue resurfaced. The ad, however, makes little attempt to cozy up to Iowans or make a personal connection. This is classic Romney: all business and no fluff, focused on a limited policy point.

By contrast, Huckabee’s ads are all about the personal touch. In an open collar he looks straight into the camera from a comfy sofa in his “Better America” and “Secure Borders” Ads.   In the former, he talks about his humble roots and promises to leave a better America for the next generation. While he speaks in general terms about understanding ordinary Americans the screen flashes with statistics of his accomplishments in education and healthcare as governor.

The implicit message: he did a lot for people like you. In “Secure Borders” he is in the same setting but explains in common sense terms that we should make it at least as hard to cross an international border as it is to get on an airplane in “your home town.” He intercuts scenes of his successful speech at the Voters Value Summit with the crowd cheering as he promises to secure the border and oppose amnesty. Again, he never strays far from the value voters who have lifted his poll numbers.

Likewise, a casually attired Thompson speaks directly to the camera from what appears to be a local Iowa diner in “Service” — a largely biographical ad — and “No Amnesty” which sounds themes similar to Huckabee’s immigration spot. These ads aimed for small town and rural voters are a far cry from the strictly negative YouTube ad he brought with him to the CNN/YouTube debate.

In that one Thompson he focused on his opponents’ unconservative moments — Romney making an impassioned pro-choice appeal, Giuliani criticizing the NRA and endorsing Mario Cuomo, and Huckabee pleading with the Arkansas legislature for just about any tax they could think of. (Unfortunately for Thompson, the marked change in Huckabee’s appearance after his 110lb weight loss makes it initially hard to identify that the tax loving figure is Huckabee and may leave voters with the impression this occurred a very long time ago.)

As for Giuliani he has yet to run TV spots in Iowa, perhaps the clearest signal that he would be pleased to conserve resources and live to fight in friendlier territory. His New Hampshire ads — “Promise” and “Tested” — make the pitch that his New York experience is proof of his conservative philosophy of governance and his ability to deal with tough problems. Giuliani looks directly into the camera in a tight shot wearing professional attire, making the argument that he has gotten results and managed through crises.

In Rudy’s “One Hour” ad,he makes a foreign policy argument –the hostages were released by Iran one hour after Ronald Reagan took office and likewise the world’s terrorists and strongmen will respect and fear him as he promises to “stand up to them and..[not] back down.” There is no fuzzy, warm outreach here, just a classic tough guy Rudy promising to whip Washington and the world’s bad guys into shape. Just yesterday, he released “Will” a gritty, no nonsense spot explaining what he is going to do to end illegal immigration and making the argument that the real issue is who has the leadership skills and political will to close the border.

McCain, whose remaining hopes reside in New Hampshire, has a few recent spots there –“Love America Enough,”  “Backbone of Steel,” and “Trust.” In the first, he pitches to independent minded New Hampshire voters and makes a virtue of the controversial stances like campaign finance reform and his record of upsetting people – including the big spenders and the Pentagon. He loves America, he explains, enough to make people mad. (This may will either endear him to New Hampshire voters or remind them that he has been a thorn in the side of his Party — and perhaps these very voters.) In “Backbone of Steel” Curt Shilling makes a direct appeal based on McCain’s character, tenacity, and courage, noting his refusal to accept early release as a POW. (The underlying message: McCain is the tougher and more honorable than mere politicians.) And finally “Trust” shows some glitzier production values but makes a straight argument on reducing spending and cutting taxes and reminds voters of his endorsement by the Union Leader.

In less than a month we will know if Huckabee’s folksiness bests Romney’s business like policy salesmanship. We will know whether Thompson closes the sale in Iowa, or tough guy Rudy or stubbornly independent McCain pulls it out in New Hampshire. Both the air war and the troops on the ground will determine the outcome.  And, finally, the herd will begin to thin out.  We hope.