New Edge To Health Care Ads

The Senate next week goes back to debating health care as lawmakers negotiate deals to move toward a final vote. Advocacy groups have not let up in their TV ads for or against the bill, and some of those health care ads are sounding a lot like campaign ads.

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The health care debate is not only playing out in the grand halls and backrooms of Washington, it's playing out in ads, as well. With the 2010 elections coming into view, the ads are starting to take on a sharp partisan edge as NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: Add up all the political advertising in 2009 - ads on issues, state and local races - ad it up and it comes to about a billion dollars. That's according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group in Arlington, Virginia.

And in the top slot, at $200 million, is health care. Many of the advertisers remain focused on the legislation, big ones like the AFL-CIO and the coalition led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And not so big advertisers, for instance, Dr. Aylona Farr(ph). She's a family practitioner in Alaska, and she paid to put this ad on TV in Anchorage.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: ...million uninsured and driving physicians out of business. Alaska physicians need your help. Call your senators and representatives...

OVERBY: Farr said she's advertising because Medicare reimbursements don't come close to covering her costs, she's had to opt out of Medicare. And she said the new bill would make things worse.

Dr. AYLONA FARR: You know, I'm trained as a physician. I've been working for 26 years. I'm going to do what is best for my patient.

OVERBY: But many of the health care messages seem to be shifting away from the substance of the bill and toward the bill as a partisan issue. Evan Tracey is with the Campaign Media Analysis Group.

Mr. EVAN TRACEY (Chief Operating Officer, Campaign Media Analysis Group): Even if something were to get done before the end of the year, I think what you're going to see is this advertising is going to carry forward and really try and set the table for the upcoming elections.

OVERBY: The advertising goes forward using the usual political tools. First, there are issue ads against incumbents who face tough re-election campaigns. The conservative advocacy organization, Institute for Liberty, targeted several Senate Democrats.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: Senator Lincoln, please stop these huge tax and spending increases that will kill Arkansas jobs.

OVERBY: That's Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. She's on the fence on health care and also happens to be one of the most vulnerable Democratic senators running next year.

Another common device in campaign season is robocalls. The National Republican Senatorial Committee used them last week. Senator John McCain recorded a message that he's asking for allies to prevent cuts in the Medicare budget. This robocall went out in Colorado.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I need Senator Michael Bennett to join me in this effort. If you want to keep Medicare from getting cut, please go to our Web site at...

OVERBY: A Web site belonging to the Republican Senatorial Committee. And yet another device, the straight-ahead attack ad, like this one from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee aimed at Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman. He's infuriated Democrats. Among other things, after losing the Democratic primary back in 2006, he bolted the party and got elected as an Independent. The Progressive Committee's ad ties that bit of history to Lieberman's recent efforts on the health care bill: He's trying to kill a government-backed public option for insurance coverage.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #3: We know that Connecticut voters support it three to one, but Joe never forgets who he ran to represent: himself.

OVERBY: The ad is running, even though Lieberman is well dug in against the public option, and he's not up again until 2012.

At the Campaign Media Analysis Group, Evan Tracey says groups against the bill are now outspending groups for it, but neither side is hurting.

Mr. TRACEY: It's not that one side has gone down, it's really that the sides against have gone up.

OVERBY: So whatever else might be said about the health care overhaul, it's good for fundraising.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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