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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

If you live in one of the states that holds an early primary or caucus, you're probably inundated with campaign ads. This very week you may have seen Social Security commercials courtesy of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Throughout this campaign, NPR media correspondent Dave Folkenflik will examine the candidates and their ads and their rhetoric. He finds very messages in those dueling commercials.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Let's start with Hillary Clinton, whose ad is running in Iowa and New Hampshire.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #1: When George Bush threatened to privatize Social Security, Hillary was there, fighting every step of the way to stop him.

FOLKENFLIK: Clinton is shown in still photos along with older people seemingly ranging in age from 50 to 340 in hospitals and retirement homes. The black-and-white pictures recall the Depression-era shots by Walker Evans.

In one, a frail woman lifts her hand to the senator's face.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #1: She's still there, fighting to stop long-term care insurance scams that prey on the elderly.

FOLKENFLIK: Got that? The narrator says twice she'll fight - a warrior against people who prey upon the elderly, including scammers and that meany President Bush. The ad promises Clinton won't let bad things happen to the vulnerable.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #1: These days it seems like every candidate on Earth is coming here for you. But which candidate has been there for you all along?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, there is another candidate: Clinton's Senate colleague, Barack Obama, whose running this TV ad in Iowa.

(Soundbite of ad)

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democratic, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): We've got 78 million baby boomers who are going to be retiring. There's going to be more money going out than money coming in.

FOLKENFLIK: Obama's pitch is more cerebral, less visceral. He's standing in shirtsleeves with a microphone in what looks like a library wing. He's surrounded by attentive voters, more likely in their 50s and 60s. And he warns...

(Soundbite of ad)

Senator OBAMA: If we have failed to have a real, honest conversation about Social Security, it will not get fixed.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, that doesn't sound good. A caption says he'll protect benefits, prevent the privatization of Social Security, and make the wealthy pay more in Social Security taxes. But Obama suggests a larger point.

(Soundbite of ad)

Senator OBAMA: I don't want to just put my finger out to the wind and see what the polls say. I want to bring the country together to solve a problem.

FOLKENFLIK: Ah, the man sees a problem and he'll bring us together to solve it. What's more, he's cluing you in here - hey, this guy won't pander, he'll speak tough truths. Unlike certain people, including presumably one Hillary Clinton, who offers few details on her plans for Social Security.

Dr. JENNIFER BORDA (University of New Hampshire): They're portraying her as part of the old guard, so not able to really envision anything in the future that pushes some of these ideas forward.

FOLKENFLIK: Jennifer Borda is an assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire who studies political rhetoric. She says Obama is appealing to the elderly with his onscreen promises, but is also seeking somewhat younger voters who may have fears about the program's solvency.

Dr. BORDA: I think he can kind of have it both ways with that ad.

FOLKENFLIK: The funny thing is, the two candidates aren't that far apart to the extent we can tell. Professor Borda says Clinton is being careful not to provide Republicans with fodder by giving too many specifics.

Dr. BORDA: So I think you're just seeing her becoming a little bit more broad, a little more general, a little bit more bipartisan.

FOLKENFLIK: But by playing it safe for the general election, Clinton also risks appearing like she's taking Democratic voters for granted - a good two months before the first primary.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can see Social Security ads from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama at npr.org.

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