Jan. 26 (Bloomberg) -- Allies of presidential candidate Newt Gingrich say they are trying to catch up with rival Mitt Romney in the television advertising war ahead of Florida’s Jan. 31 primary and amid early voting by thousands of Republicans.
A pro-Gingrich committee bankrolled by billionaire casino executive Sheldon Adelson and his wife announced a $6 million advertising campaign in Florida on Jan. 24, when it introduced an ad that links Romney to President Barack Obama on health-care policy and says the former Massachusetts governor “invented government-run health care.”
Romney and a political committee backing him have spent more than $7.6 million on broadcast television advertisements in Florida through Jan. 24, according to data from New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising. Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker who won South Carolina’s Jan. 21 primary by 12 percentage points, is the primary target of the pro-Romney advertising campaign.
“A $6 million ad buy attacking Romney is more than enough to blanket all 10 of the state’s media markets, assuring that every likely Republican voter will see at least three ads before Election Day,” Daniel Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, said in an e-mail.
“What it won’t do, though, is change any absentee and early votes that have already been cast, and that number is growing,” he added.
Roughly 387,000 voters had cast early or absentee ballots as of Jan. 24, according to the Florida secretary of state’s office. The 2008 Republican primary drew 1.95 million voters.
Polling shows a tightening race. Romney was backed by 36 percent compared to 34 percent for Gingrich, according to a Florida survey by the Hamden, Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University. That’s within the 4-point error margin of the Jan. 19-23 poll and represents a 10-point gain for Gingrich compared with a Quinnipiac survey earlier this month.
A CNN/Time poll Jan. 22-24 also found a 36-to-34 percent Romney edge in Florida, with Gingrich narrowing a 25-point gap in CNN’s mid-month survey.
Gingrich led among voters interviewed after the South Carolina primary and Romney was ahead among voters interviewed before that election, the Quinnipiac survey showed.
“There are probably a considerable number” of absentee ballots cast before last weekend “that were banked for Romney,” Smith said. “Newt’s late surge may be able to make up the difference.”
The advertising campaign by the pro-Gingrich group, Winning Our Future, seeks to build on Gingrich’s momentum and counter Romney’s attacks on the former speaker.
“There are saturation commercials going on right now, mostly against Gingrich, although Gingrich is starting to show up in some media outlets,” Matthew Corrigan, the chairman of the political science department at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, said in a telephone interview yesterday.
Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas trail far behind Gingrich and Romney in Florida surveys. Santorum and Paul aren’t airing broadcast television ads in Florida, CMAG data show.
The advertising on behalf of Romney’s campaign is about evenly divided between the pro-Romney committee Restore Our Future, which aired ads 6,039 times at an estimated cost of $4,067,940, and the Romney campaign, which aired ads 5,233 times at an estimated cost of $3,575,240, CMAG data show.
All five ads that Restore Our Future is currently airing attack Gingrich, on issues including ethics, his service as Speaker and his ties to Freddie Mac, the mortgage finance company now operating under federal conservatorship.
Romney’s campaign is airing three ads, including one that says Gingrich “resigned from Congress in disgrace” and then “cashed in as a D.C. insider.” Romney and Gingrich both are airing Spanish-language spots in the Miami market, which takes in a concentration of Cuban-American Republicans.
Restore Our Future spokeswoman Brittany Gross said she couldn’t comment on her organization’s strategy, while noting the group’s Jan. 23 announcement that it is spending $4.5 million to air ads through Jan. 31. Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul didn’t immediately return an e-mail seeking comment about how the pro-Gingrich PAC’s advertising would influence its strategy.
Separately, Romney is the target of an ad by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a labor group that supports Obama.
The union’s ad links Romney to “corporate greed” and “Medicare fraud” and morphs an image of him into one of Florida Governor Rick Scott, whose approval rating was 33 percent last month. AFSCME spent an estimated $262,500 to air the ad as of Jan. 24, CMAG data show.
The erosion of Romney’s lead in Florida, where retail campaigning is difficult and TV advertising is needed to reach the state’s 4.1 million registered Republicans, shows how momentum can trump money, Corrigan said.
“You need to be on TV in Florida,” he said. “But TV is not always going to win it for you.”
During his presidential campaign four years ago, Romney far outpaced his Republican rivals on Florida television, spending $5.6 million to $3 million for former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and $2.1 million for Arizona Senator John McCain, according to a Jan. 20 CMAG report.
McCain beat Romney in Florida in 2008, 36 percent to 31 percent, 10 days after McCain won the South Carolina primary. Giuliani had 15 percent.
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