TV ads to heat up as primaries grow closer

When people sit down to watch Oprah this week, they likely will also see John Oxendine or Karen Handel or Roy Barnes or another political candidate.

With one week left before the Democratic and Republican primaries, Georgians can expect to see plenty of political hopefuls fill their screens when their favorite television stars are not on the air.

Some people have already taken notice of the television campaigning, although they don't always find what they see convincing.

"I've seen some, but not too many," said George Woodruff, an 82-year-old retiree from Mineral Bluff in North Georgia who said he sees more ads for Tennessee politicians than those from Georgia.

Either way, he hasn't found the political advertising stirring.

"To be honest, it looks like a pretty poor crop," he said. "I’m not really impressed with any of the candidates in the race."

One set of candidates -- Democrats Thurbert Baker and Barnes, and Republicans Handel, Oxendine, Nathan Deal and Eric Johnson -- is expected to rely on television this week.

Meanwhile, the five other Democratic candidates and three other Republicans won't be showing up during "Scoundrels," "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" or "Lie to Me." They have no money for the media blitz.

"It is hard to build momentum when you run out of cash," said Michael Binford, a retired political scientist from Georgia State University.

TV advertising is seen as the best way to win votes, but questions remain how much the money will matter next Tuesday.

"For many of the campaigns, the decisions on how, where and when to run television ads are the most important and most difficult of the campaign," said Chris Carpenter, the campaign manager for Barnes. "With limited resources, the candidates have to analyze the cost and effectiveness of running commercials in the expensive Atlanta media market vs. cheaper, but less populated, areas outside the metro.

As the best-funded candidate, though, Barnes has not had to worry as much as others about limited resources. He has been running TV ads since the spring while Baker, after a media blitz earlier this year, had contracted for little TV time this week as of Friday.

He also has managed to make a strong impression with those ads.

Daniel Groce, 22, who works for a nonprofit in Macon, said he has already voted in the Republican primary for Johnson, the former state senator from Savannah. But he said that of all the ads he has seen, it's the ones for Barnes that have stood out.

"Roy's I see all the time," Groce said. "It's unbelievable. I see it most when I watch the Braves games. Roy Barnes' commercials, if you go just on the commercials and what he says, there is no reason he shouldn't win by a landslide. [But] the cost of all the promises he's making are pretty steep. It's really effective, but personally, I don't put a lot of stock into what he's promising to do."

As the most poorly funded of the major GOP candidates, Handel has had to be the most careful with her money. The former secretary of state so far has relied mostly on direct-mail advertising and grass-roots campaigning. She finally went on TV this week, spending $108,000 on her first media buy after being outspent in terms of television advertising by Johnson and -- to a much smaller extent -- Deal.

This week she became competitive for the first time in TV land. Campaign spokesman Dan McLagan said she nearly doubled the $108,000 media buy on Monday with new contracts. He acknowledged campaign poverty forced Handel to skip television previously, but he contended that the direct-mail and grass-roots tactics were working. On Monday, Handel got a boost when GOP powerhouse Sarah Palin endorsed her candidacy.

"Some people went up last week when a lot of people were on vacation, and we didn't think that made much sense in terms of resources," McLagan said. "[Johnson] went up on the air a while back. He spent a lot of early money and it didn’t do him any good. [Oxendine] has spent a lot of money, and it hasn’t done his poll numbers any good.”

“We think we have a good ad," McLagan said. "It cuts through the clutter, and we think it is going to propel in to the runoff.”

Matt Towery, a former Republican lawmaker who runs the media and polling firm InsideAdvantage, said Handel's ad was well-done and appeared designed to appeal to female voters and Palin admirers.

Johnson had put together a campaign fund that allowed him to try to build name recognition by getting on television earlier than any GOP contender other than Oxendine, whose TV ads rolled out in May . But Towery contended the ads didn't focus enough on metro Atlanta.

“Johnson needs something to knock it out of the park in metro Atlanta, and if it is coming it better come quickly," he said.

Johnson has contracted to pay $228,0000 for 355 spots this week.

Deal, the former congressman and the remaining contender for an expected runoff spot against Oxendine, contracted to buy $198,000 worth of ads this month.

Oxendine isn't letting up. He has contracted to spend $352,000 in the last days up to the primary.

Towery finds fault, though, in the quality of Oxendine's ads -- saying that they have served him poorly, especially the early ones.

“You can buy all the television in the world, and if the ad is lousy it has no value," he said. "Oxendine's first ads from a polling perspective probably hurt him.”

Binford thought Oxendine's failure to move his poll numbers had more to do with his past controversies -- such as questions about whether he broke campaign finance laws -- than the ad campaign.

“Oxendine has had a strange candidacy," Binford said. "He has name recognition, he has raised a lot of money, but there are people who have questions about him.”

In contrast to Oxendine, Towery said Barnes has used his money well, running a television campaign that may re-establish him as the state's most prominent politician. Barnes is spending $227,000 on ads for the last week before the primary as he tries to win the Democratic nomination outright with more than 50 percent vote.

The only Barnes challenger who has any TV presence is Baker. As of Friday, he had only contracted to buy 54  spots for $56,000 -- which made Towery doubt that Baker would even get in a runoff.

Baker campaign manager Jeff DiSantis said his candidate would be buying ads all week -- although generally campaigns contract for the ad spots weeks before they run -- and the campaign got a boost Monday when former President Bill Clinton endorsed Baker.

"Can we match Roy Barnes dollar for dollar? Nobody can, but we expect to be in a runoff," DiSantis said. "Roy went on the air in early May. He has more resources than everybody else, so that is not unusual. It is also not unusual not to win when that is the case."