It’s a Kinder, Gentler Iowa Primary, Until the 11th Hour

A new Federal Election Commission requirement that presidential contenders appear in ads to say they approved the message altered the tone of debate in the Iowa primary, with candidates refraining from attack ads until the week leading up to today’s vote.

The decision by Howard Dean and Sen. John Kerry to forego matching federal funds—freeing them from spending caps in each state during the primary season—led to unprecendented outlays in Iowa. Dean spent more than $2.6 million through Jan. 9 and was projected to throw down $300,000 more last week. He appears to have bought more TV time in Iowa than any presidential candidate in history.

Combined, the Democrats aired $6.2 million worth of ads in the first nine days of January alone, according to the Wisconsin Advertising Project. The bulk came from Dean, Kerry, Rep. Richard Gephardt and Sen. John Edwards. The Democrats spent more than two and a half times what they did during the 2000 election in Iowa, according to the TNS Media Intelligence/Campaign Media Analysis Group. (TNS/CMAG tracked spending in Davenport, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as well as Omaha, Neb., whose TV stations reach into Iowa.)

Last Tuesday, Dean and Gephardt—the front-runners in the state, according to polls—launched spots attacking their opponents. They became the first to do so in a pre-primary slate of ads that experts described as unusually civil. Until then, candidates had been “striking a notably positive tone,” said Ken Goldstein, director of the Wisconsin Advertising Project.

The FEC rule requiring candidates to endorse spots onscreen has had a great deal to do with that, said Deborah Jackson, national marketing and advertising co-director for the Dennis Kucinich campaign. “They’re not as extreme,” she said of the ads. “Having a third party slamming the candidates with a voiceover is one thing, but when the candidate has to come on camera and endorse the ad, it can make them seem insincere or shallow.”

The gloves did come off Jan. 13. In Dean’s ad, he attacks Gephardt, Kerry and Edwards for supporting the war in Iraq. A voiceover says: “Where did the Washington Democrats stand on the war? Dick Gephardt wrote the resolution to authorize war. John Kerry and John Edwards both voted for the war. Then Dick Gephardt voted to spend another $87 billion on Iraq.”

Gephardt unleashed an ad the same day that attacks Dean, Kerry and Sen. Joseph Lieberman for their support of NAFTA.

Bill Hillsman, president of North Woods Advertising in Minneapolis, who worked on Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential bid, said candidates need to be wary of early attack ads because their messages can be used by the opposing party in the general election. “Some ads used to attack in the general election stem from information that comes to light during the infighting of the primary,” he said.

The Democrats realize that, said Jackson. “We are seeing all the candidates trying to be more conscientious about their statements,” she said.

Lieberman and Wesley Clark, who are skipping Iowa but campaigning heavily in New Hampshire and elsewhere, are also focusing on their own agendas and accomplishments, at least for now. Last week in Delaware, Lieberman released an ad that discusses his tax-cut plans. Clark recently rolled out a tribute to his mother who worked as a secretary to make ends meet after Clark’s father died.