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Howard Dean and the power of TV ads

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Every four years, the race for president is slightly different from previous campaign cycles. This year, Democrats face the most compact primary schedule in history, and after the opening bell - the Jan. 19 caucuses in Iowa - the party's nomination could well be locked up in a matter of weeks.

Which leads to the musical question: How does a Democrat who wants to be president manage the slow lead-up to the big bang?

Two of the Democrats, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, opted to go up early with television ads in key primary states. Dr. Dean is now the undisputed front-runner in the first two states, Iowa and New Hampshire; Senator Edwards remains mired in single digits.

Advertising, of course, is only part of the mix that feeds into how voters react to a candidate. Dean has also followed the Jimmy Carter model of dark-horse success: Show up in Iowa and New Hampshire early and often, and shake as many hands in as many living rooms as possible.

Simple, blunt, and a message

Still, political analysts credit Dean's simple and blunt TV ads with contributing to the buzz that built around his campaign early - combined with his innovative use of the Internet - which in turn has led many Democrats to open their checkbooks.

The Dean campaign is flush with cash, and set to break party fundraising records for the quarter that ends Sept. 30. That has meant more spending on more ads in more states.

But the message has been just as important as the medium, which may help explain why Dean has flourished while Edwards has not.

"Dean has gotten a lot of attention, because he was the first prominent candidate in the field to seriously question whether we should be involved in Iraq," says Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. "He's been able to capitalize on that."

Edwards's first ad focused on introducing himself to voters, not on policy. "He comes across as very pleasant, not out of step with the basic values of Iowa," says Professor Squire. "But he does have to take that next step and explain why they should vote for him."

The tasks for Kerry and Gephardt
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