- Associated Press - Sunday, June 17, 2012

RICHMOND — “Tell President Obama: Stop the spending,” screams an ad running during the broadcast of NBC’s “Today” show in central Virginia. At a break during ABC’s “The View,” Mitt Romney is praised in a different spot for his “strong leadership.”

In Tampa, Fla., a commercial in the middle of “Dateline NBC” shows a woman fretting about the national debt under Mr. Obama and saying: “He spent like our country’s credit card had no limit.” In an ad seen during evening newscasts, the Obama campaign trashes Mr. Romney for “the worst economic record in the country” when he was governor of Massachusetts.

The political pitches are coming early and often in Virginia, Florida and other hotly contested states that are expected to determine the outcome of the White House contest. So far they’re mostly jammed around local newscasts and current affairs shows along with an occasional appearance on shows like “The Price is Right” on CBS and ABC’s “General Hospital.”

At this stage in the campaign, both Republicans and Democrats are focusing the bulk of their advertising on selling their campaign message to a select group of people … those who pay close attention to the news, seek to stay informed and influence those around them.

“They are trying to get opinion leaders, early donors and the press to focus on certain issues or events,” says Joe Mercurio, a New York-based political media buyer.

This was the finding when an Associated Press reporter recently spent several hours watching television in Richmond and Tampa, two population hubs in states that have emerged as pivotal to the election prospects for Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney. Mr. Obama carried Virginia and Florida over Republican John McCain in 2008 but is fighting for a repeat this time.

Both states and both media markets are awash in TV ads in a crush noteworthy for its negativity, early start and involvement of outside groups that are likely to spend more on commercials than both the Obama and Romney campaigns.

The Obama campaign spent $721,000 to advertise in Virginia during this recent week compared with $384,000 for the Romney campaign. But Crossroads GPS, a conservative-leaning independent group spent about $437,000 on ads attacking Mr. Obama in Virginia, putting the pro-Romney efforts on par with the president’s team.

Tampa is the second-largest metropolitan region in Florida and anchors the western end of the I-4 corridor that bisects the central part of the state. The corridor is home to many swing voters and Tampa will host the Republican National Convention in late August.

In Florida during this recent week, the Obama campaign spent just under $1 million to run ads compared with $638,000 for Crossroads GPS. That gave the Romney campaign the luxury of staying off the air and saving money.

Indeed, a day of television viewing in Tampa found a nearly constant stream of negative ads volleyed between the Obama campaign and Crossroads. As in Virginia, both sides focused on running ads around morning and evening newscasts in Tampa.