Even before John McCain clinched the Republican presidential nomination, an obscure liberal group fired the first shot of what's expected to be a wildly expensive advertising war in the White House race.
Without anyone else in the country really noticing, TV viewers in the Erie, Pa., media market were seeing this over the past three weeks:
"A trillion dollars in Iraq over the next 10 years — McSame as Bush. A millionaire who's for tax cuts for millionaires. McSame as Bush."
The ad hammers its point with a digital photo of McCain, in which his face is repeatedly clipped out and the face of President Bush is pasted in.
"This is the first shot of what's going to be a tremendous amount of outside advertising in 2008," said Ken Goldstein, director of the Wisconsin Advertising Project.
Goldstein has been tracking political ads since 1996 at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
The Spend-a-Thon Begins
The group behind the anti-McCain ad, the Campaign to Defend America, announced Wednesday that its ad buy will exceed $1 million.
Goldstein wonders if it will work.
"A million-dollar-plus in a national environment in which hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent in a still-contested Democratic primary can't be expected to move the needle directly," he said. "Maybe it moves the needle indirectly if it starts to get other coverage and attract other attention."
Goldstein said the three-week run of ads in Erie appears to have been a test.
"If you're looking for the sorts of swing voters that have decided the 2000 and 2004 elections — white, working class, independent, perhaps economically liberal, economically distressed but more socially conservative — you will find those sorts of voters in droves in a place like the Erie media market," he said.
Leading the Campaign to Defend America are key figures from the more famous group MoveOn.org. They declined or ignored several requests for interviews this week.
But this ad signals the start of an eight-month spend-a-thon on the airwaves. There's more money than ever available to independent groups, and recent Supreme Court decisions make it harder to restrict their spending.
Connecting the Dots
This technique isn't new. In 2004, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth hardly bought any air time at first. But its ad attacking Democrat John Kerry's war record was recycled endlessly in media coverage.
Last year, some influential Democrats and the Service Employees International Union organized the Fund for America, essentially a pot of money for pro-Democratic organizations.
Fund for America gave the Campaign to Defend America $1 million for the anti-McCain ad.
According to Steve Weissman, who follows independent groups for the Campaign Finance Institute, the head of Fund for America is Rob McKay, who is also the heir to Taco Bell and chairman of the Democracy Alliance, a group of wealthy donors who aim to build a stronger infrastructure for the progressive movement.
And another major actor in the Fund for America is John Podesta, who has been subsidized by George Soros with his Center for American Progress," he said.
The Center for American Progress is a progressive think-tank. Financier Soros not only put more than $25 million into the Democrats' 2004 campaign. He's also given the Fund for America $2.5 million.
The Fund for America has said it is building a kitty of $100 million. There's a conservative counterpart — Freedom's Watch. Its leaders have used $250 million as a target.
And you know that neither group will want to leave any of that money unspent.