Advertising War Heats Up Before Mich. Primary

Michigan's primary isn't until Feb. 28, but Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney — as well as a superPAC supporting Romney — have taken to the airwaves with a mix of positive and negative advertising.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. The Republican presidential campaign has moved to Michigan. That state, along with Arizona, holds its primary on February 28th.

Polls in Michigan, and nationally, show a dramatically tightened race between native son Mitt Romney, and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. And NPR's Brian Naylor reports that the ad wars in Michigan are heating up.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Let's start with what might be the most amusing negative ad so far this year. It's from Santorum's campaign and it features a Mitt Romney look-alike firing a mud-shooting rifle at cardboard cutouts of Santorum. It's called "Rombo."

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD, "ROMBO")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mitt Romney's negative attack machine is back on full throttle. This time, Romney's firing his mud at Rick Santorum. Romney and his superPAC have spent a staggering $20 million brutally attacking fellow Republicans.

NAYLOR: The last scene shows mud splattered all over the Romney look-alike. It's not clear how widely this ad has been viewed on the air. Stanford University professor Shanto Iyengar says its main audience may be the media.

SHANTO IYENGAR: It's kind of a novelty, sort of a gimmicky ad. I think the hope is that they might get some free coverage, and of course, it resonates with the idea that the campaign is overly negative.

NAYLOR: In fact, the GOP campaign has been very negative. A widely publicized study after last month's Florida primary showed a full 92 percent of the ads aired in the week before the primary were negative.

Vanderbilt University political science professor John Geer.

JOHN GEER: The idea that negativity itself becomes an issue in a campaign is, of course, interesting and speaks to the amount of negativity that's going on and it's something that's really only about 20 years old. It was really Michael Dukakis complaining about all the attack ads aired against him that first introduced this as a potential issue, so this is the Santorum effort to try to inoculate themselves from the pending attacks that are coming.

NAYLOR: And they are coming. The superPAC supporting Romney, Restore Our Future, has reportedly purchased almost half a million dollars in air time in Michigan over the next two weeks. This one is already up, targeting Santorum's voting record as a senator and member of Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Santorum voted to raise the debt limit five times and for billions in wasteful projects, including the bridge to nowhere, in a single session.

NAYLOR: Vanderbilt's Geer says the Restore Our Future ad aims to frame the debate by painting Santorum as a big-spending Washington insider. In contrast to the superPAC, the Romney campaign is airing a biographical spot.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

MITT ROMNEY: Now, I grew up in Michigan. It was exciting to be here.

NAYLOR: The ad shows Romney driving around Detroit and its environs and the decline of the area's economy.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

ROMNEY: People here in Detroit are distressed. I want to make Michigan stronger and better. Michigan's been my home and this is personal. I'm Mitt Romney and I approve this message.

NAYLOR: John Geer says Romney is trying to accomplish a number of things with that ad.

GEER: First of all, he wants to make a connection with Michigan voters and he's able to do that because he lived there. He also wants to be able to check the claim that Santorum made about Romney being only negative. Here's an example of a positive ad.

NAYLOR: And by showing his empathy with Detroit, Romney's also likely to be attempting to deflect criticism from his opposition to federal assistance to the auto industry, a position summed up in a 2008 op ed article he wrote in the New York Times entitled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt."

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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