The good citizens of Iowa are getting an eyeful and an earful of political ads these days, far more than before, even for one of the epicenters of presidential politics.
In the past week, four Democratic White House contenders and two Republicans have spread their message on radio or television in the state, more than four months before Iowa is scheduled to hold its first-in-the-nation caucuses and weeks before the traditional post-Labor Day launch of the fall campaign.
So far, the presidential candidates have spent at least $5 million on ads in Iowa, about $25 for each expected caucus goer.
The ad pitches vary.
Nearing 2004 levels already
Democratic candidate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, in her first ad of the campaign this month, cast herself as a caring guardian of Americans who are invisible to Washington. Barack Obama presents himself as an agent of hope and unity. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson promotes his record on jobs. And Sen. Joe Biden, in a potent ad that describes his return from Iraq with the remains of a dead soldier, makes his case for a political solution to the war in Iraq.
Among Republicans, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is condemning New York's immigration policies, a not-so-subtle dig at rival Rudy Giuliani, the city's former mayor. Giuliani is running a radio ad promoting his support for a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Romney and Richardson have been the most aggressive advertisers, each already approaching or surpassing the amounts spent by Democrats John Kerry and Howard Dean during the entire Iowa caucus campaign of 2003-2004.
That more money is being spent is hardly surprising. Candidates are raising amounts of cash that are shattering previous records.
"There are several things that are different: The money race, the amount of attention both nationally and in the early states that this race is getting and the number of candidates who are largely blank slates who are aggressively trying to fill in those blanks before their opponents do," said Stephanie Cutter, a Democratic strategist who was Kerry's campaign communication director in 2004.
Political advertising in Iowa, and to a lesser degree in the first-primary state of New Hampshire, has been growing even though more than a dozen states want to hold nominating contests on Feb. 5 and other states are jockeying for January slots.
Looking for momentum and attention
The Iowa focus underscores a strategy that many of the candidates appear to embrace - that a good showing in Iowa will build momentum for subsequent contests.
"Iowa is going to rise to a level that you've probably never seen before," said Evan Tracey, who tracks political advertising as chief operating officer for TNS Media Intelligence/Campaign Media Analysis Group. "The wild card is does anybody venture into these Super Tuesday states - how soon and how far out are they going to play in these Feb. 5 states."
Competing for the public's attention are ads from a number of interest groups. Nurse and physician organizations want Democratic candidates to support a single-payer system of health care. Two philanthropic organizations - the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation - have spent $120,000 in ads in Iowa urging candidates to discuss the current condition of American education.
This week, a new group backed and financed by allies of President Bush, launched ads in 20 states in support of the administration's policies in Iraq. The campaign is spending more than $350,000 in Iowa, according to an analysis of the ad placement by war critics.
So far, Democrats have been far more eager to run ads than Republicans, and their push has intensified in recent weeks. Clinton only begun running her ad less than two weeks ago. Biden, who is staking his campaign on building up his standing in Iowa, aired his first ad last weekend and put up a second one this week.
Giuliani, blessed with high name recognition and a perch atop national polls, has not yet felt a need to hit the airwaves with an overarching campaign message. His radio ads are designed to counter Romney's immigration criticism.
"Romney recognizes that immigration is still a red hot issue with primary voters," said Scott Reed, a Republican strategist who managed Bob Dole's presidential campaign in 1996. "Giuliani feels he's a little on the defense."
Look for Giuliani to begin advertising more heavily in the coming weeks. His campaign has been requesting ad rates in Iowa, New Hampshire and California.
So far Romney has spent more than $6 million on advertising in Iowa, New Hampshire and other states, including a $2 million national cable buy earlier this year. A multimillionaire, Romney also lent his campaign nearly $9 million and more could be on the way.
"Most campaigns are not active until after Labor Day," Romney media consultant Alex Castellanos said. "We had to get started a little earlier because when he started a year ago he was known to 5 percent of the people."
The same applies for some Democrats. And, at least in Iowa, they're all becoming a bit more familiar.