- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2012

DETROIT — On TV, radio and over the Internet, Michigan voters are getting a firsthand taste of the growing nastiness of the Republican presidential race as candidates and their PAC allies blanket the airwaves here with ads ahead of Tuesday’s crucial primary.

Rick Santorum slams rival Mitt Romney for “refusing to talk about his liberal record” on abortion, gun control and health care. Mr. Romney, desperate to avoid a loss in the state where he was born, talks up his Michigan roots and slams Mr. Santorum’s record on government spending. The campaign for Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, in perhaps the most talked-about ad running in the state, slams Mr. Santorum as a “fake” conservative whose record on government spending is “not groovy.”

Whether the often personal hand-to-hand conflict will produce a winner for the party is another question.

“The bad news for Republicans is that I think they are really hurting themselves,” said Robert Kolt, a Michigan State University advertising and public relations professor, of the proliferation of what he describes as poorly produced ad spots hitting the Michigan airways.

“I don’t know that Republicans are really evaluating the damage the primary is having on the candidates,” he said. “Usually, you say the primary is a good, healthy process. But I think some of the negative messages — especially by the super PACs — are really hurting the credibility of the candidates. While the ads are annoying, I think the negative ones are somewhat effective.”

As GOP front-runners fight it out, a super PAC supporting President Obama has purchased more than $230,000 worth of television advertising in the urban Flint and Detroit markets.

The Obama campaign itself rolled out a new spot Thursday touting Mr. Obama’s role in the bailout of Detroit’s Big Three automakers. One day earlier, the GOP field had condemned the taxpayer rescue effort.

“The ad buy in Michigan by the Obama super PAC is an indication the Obama camp wants Rick Santorum to be the GOP nominee and that they believe he would be easier to beat in a general election,” said GOP strategist Cheri Jacobus, who heads the Washington, D.C., firm Capital Strategies. “They likely believe at this point that the primary is still Romney’s to lose, but if they can land a punch in his ‘home’ state of Michigan now, they will capitalize on that in a general election. They are getting a head start by running the ads now.”

The tightening race in a state Mr. Romney was once thought to have locked up has produced an unexpected bounty for local broadcast and media outlets. The Restore Our Future super PAC, which is supporting Mr. Romney, has spent more than $1 million in Michigan.

Mr. Romney also is getting a hand from real estate mogul Donald Trump, who recorded “robocalls” on behalf of the candidate.

Mr. Santorum, meanwhile, got a thumbs-up from media titan Rupert Murdoch. who took to Twitter to discuss the race. “From distance, Santorum doing great. Values really do count in America, and not sneered at as in parts of Europe. Win Michigan, game over,” Mr. Murdoch tweeted.

Mr. Paul attacked the surging Mr. Santorum with the “fake” conservative spot. Mr. Paul’s ad, which also claims Mr. Santorum voted to send billions of taxpayer dollars to dictators in North Korea, features a photo of Sasquatch holding a sign with the word “fake.”

Mr. Kolt, the MSU ad expert, calls the onslaught of GOP ads a good opportunity for the Obama camp to take its message to state voters.

“It’s an opportunity for Obama to boost his own credibility here. Why not run them now? He doesn’t have to communicate these key messages in a hostile manner. I think he can be positive,” he said.

Republicans, he said, need better ads.

“I think they are all kind of bad,” Mr. Kolt said. “They’ve just had a really low standard. … I think people look at this panel of Republican candidates and they are waiting for a clear leader and increasing credibility. I don’t think their ads here are helping.”