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Dems test messages in early nationwide ads

Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton are already advertising on a scale reminiscent of a general election.
/ Source: The New York Times

A coast-to-coast onslaught of presidential campaign advertisements began rolling out this week, with Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton already spending millions on commercials in Feb. 5 nominating states on a scale more reminiscent of a general election.

The spots represent something of a test of the messages that each believes could eventually register with a national audience.

In one that made its debut on Wednesday, Mrs. Clinton, whose campaign has been sparring with Mr. Obama all week, instead trains her fire on the current administration, with the words “Bush did nothing” streaming across a white screen at one point, a reference to what she characterizes as unheeded warnings of a foreclosure crisis.

Mr. Obama uses a new spot to confront concerns about his level of experience, speaking of his role in arms control legislation and ethics reform in the Senate.

In others, he seeks to introduce himself to an electorate far more familiar with his principal opponent, describing his mother’s death from cancer at age 53 as inspiring his plan for universal health care and his father’s leaving his mother when he was a small boy as teaching him the value of a solid education.

In focusing on particular states and markets, the candidates are also signaling where they hope to compete for the most delegates. So both have put up new spots in recent days in parts of California, Connecticut, Georgia, New Mexico and Utah, with Mr. Obama adding Alabama and Delaware and Mrs. Clinton also setting her sights on Arizona, Massachusetts and Missouri.

By choosing to spend several million dollars each on commercials that will run simultaneously in more than a dozen states over the next 10 days — and, in Mr. Obama’s case, on CNN and MSNBC as well — Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton are being driven by the tight nature of the race thus far and by the bunching of Democratic nominating contests in 22 states on Feb. 5.

All told, the Clinton and Obama campaigns are each believed to be spending at least $2 million a week on television advertising in the days before what is being billed as Super Tuesday — Mr. Obama’s cable advertising bill alone is an estimated $1 million — sums so large that it could make it harder for them to afford advertising in states with later contests if the nomination is not settled that day.

Even the cable networks said they were caught off guard by the decision of Mr. Obama’s campaign to take to the air nationally nearly 10 months before the November election, instead of just focusing on local advertising in states holding contests on Feb. 5.

By comparison, Senator John Kerry, the Democratic nominee in 2004, did not buy advertising time on CNN until that spring, when his nomination was assured and he began focusing on November. He did not buy time on MSNBC until after the nominating convention that summer.

“We’re surprised it’s been so early,” said Greg D’Alba, chief operating officer for advertising sales at CNN. “And this will probably open the door.”

To that end, another CNN official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Thursday that the network had been having conversations with the Clinton campaign about the possibility of a national buy.

On Wednesday, Howard Wolfson, Mrs. Clinton’s spokesman, said he would not comment on any future buys. But Mr. Wolfson said it was critically important for the campaign to put up commercials, this week and the next, in so many states at once.

“It’s the biggest primary day in the history of the party,” he said.

John Edwards, who has yet to win a Democratic nominating contest this season, has advertised on television this week only in South Carolina, which has a Democratic primary on Saturday, but officials said the campaign was considering advertising in California, Georgia, Kansas, Oklahoma and Wisconsin.

Thus far, those seeking the Republican nomination have been reluctant to follow the lead of Senators Obama and Clinton. Senator John McCain, Mitt Romney and Rudolph W. Giuliani are training their advertisements almost exclusively on Florida Republicans, who vote next Tuesday and whose choice, if decisive, could give one candidate in particular momentum heading into Super Tuesday.

An aide to Mr. McCain, who had struggled to raise money until taking in $7 million in the new year, said the campaign was daunted by the prospect of advertising in multiple states before Feb. 5. The cost of a statewide television buy in California alone could approach $5 million a week, the aide said. (It is for this reason that the Clinton campaign, at least, has so far advertised in San Francisco, but not Los Angeles, which is more expensive.)

In that light, “the earned media coming out of the Florida win is very, very important,” the aide said, in reference to the extensive airtime, all free, that the winner of that contest would receive on the cable news channels and network newscasts. “Riding that wave can be very important.”

Running through many of the Clinton and Obama spots, regardless of where, are fresh references to the nation’s economic downturn, a shift in emphasis from the early nominating states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

In one Mr. Obama says, “I’ll be a president who ends the tax breaks for companies that ship our jobs overseas, and put a middle-class tax cut into the hands of working Americans.”

Similarly, Mrs. Clinton likens “the Bush economy” to “a trap door: too many families are one pink slip, one missed mortgage payment, one medical diagnosis away from falling through and losing everything.”

Other spots have a more regional focus. In one by the Clinton campaign that made its debut on Tuesday and is running only in California, Mrs. Clinton appears to be speaking directly to commuters stuck on the freeways when she says, “We’ve got to get serious about ending our dependence on foreign oil.”

The spot that refers to the foreclosure crisis is running not in California, but in Connecticut and New Mexico, where the campaign appears to believe it will have more resonance.

By contrast, Mr. Obama emphasizes his health plan in Alabama, Georgia and New Mexico, but is testing a more populist message in Connecticut, Delaware and Utah.

“This administration has further divided Wall Street from Main Street,” he tells voters in those states. “You’ve got C.E.O.’s who are making more in 10 minutes than ordinary workers are making in a year.”

David D. Kirkpatrick contributed reporting.