- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 29, 2008

Sen. John McCain yesterday released the first TV commercial of the general election campaign, offering a look at his military sacrifice as a prisoner of war and his readiness to be president — a positive ad that political analysts say will precede the most expensive, and potentially negative, advertising campaigns ever seen from both sides.

With his two Democratic opponents still battling for their party’s presidential nomination, Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, is looking to extend his honeymoon with voters by reintroducing himself as a leader, tax-cutter and the man who spent years as a POW in the Vietnam War.

The new ad, titled “624787,” which was his military serial number, calls him “the American president Americans have been waiting for.”

It begins with Mr. McCain giving a campaign speech and ends with the footage from Vietnam of then-Lt. Cmdr. McCain in a hospital bed as a POW. Sandwiched in between are headlines from papers touting his support for tax cuts, and editorials describing him as a “real hero” and “ready on Day One.”

After a brief foray into negative advertising by some Republican candidates early in their primary, candidates in both parties have stuck closely to positive messages like Mr. McCain’s new ad. That will all change, ad-watchers said.

“It can only get nastier from this point. This has been one of the most patty-cake elections that we’ve dealt with in the last 20 years,” said Evan Tracey chief operating officer at the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising.

He said the campaigns themselves might stay positive — particularly if Sen. Barack Obama, who is battling Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton with a message of new-style politics, becomes the Democrats’ nominee. But the political parties and outside interest groups will make up the difference.

“There’s no scenario that I can tell you where the 527s won’t come in here and hammer away and do the dirty work,” Mr. Tracey said, referring to the groups which have taken on the roll of attack dogs over the past four years.

He said ad spending has already reached $214 million in the primaries for both parties, and could top $800 million for the entire election cycle.

Mr. McCain’s ad is running so far only in New Mexico.

Democrats said that could be a sign Mr. McCain’s poor fundraising is hampering his campaign message.

But Scott Howell, a Republican ad consultant based in Texas, said Mr. McCain’s strategy pays off: it gets tested in a state likely to be in play in November’s election, and releasing the first ad of the general election earns Mr. McCain press attention.

“It’s a safe play and a smart play because it’s inexpensive, it generates earned media,” Mr. Howell said.

He said the ad “shows McCain as people want to see, and want to believe, in McCain — this is a man who has truly given a lot to his country.”

The negative rhetoric was already building yesterday in the wake of the McCain ad.

“John McCain can try to reintroduce himself to the country, but he can’t change the fact that he cast aside his principles to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with President Bush for the last seven years,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said, calling the senator a “blatant opportunist who doesn’t understand the economy and is promising to keep our troops in Iraq for 100 years.”

Republican National Committee Deputy Chairman Frank Donatelli declared Mr. Dean’s words “disgraceful,” claiming they constituted an attack on someone who “served our nation heroically and valiantly.”

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