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Michigan Airwaves Flooded With Political Ads in TV Windfall

Feb. 23 (Bloomberg) -- The campaign advertisement featuring a drowning man appeared during the first commercial break of the local evening newscast on Detroit’s Fox affiliate. He drowned again during the third break, after the sports scores.

That Mitt Romney ad aimed at rival Rick Santorum is one of many running on Michigan’s airwaves before the Feb. 28 Republican presidential primary. There’s so much advertising by Romney, Santorum and their allies that some spots are running twice during a single 30-minute television newscast.

The air war is taking place in the run-up to a primary that wasn’t supposed to be competitive because Romney was born in Michigan and is the son of a former three-term governor. It’s generating an unexpected financial boon for TV stations in a state that was among the hardest hit by the recession.

“This was a windfall and it all came fast and furious once they realized the situation in Michigan and that Romney was going to have to fight for the state,” said Betsy Bard, national sales manager at the ABC and NBC network affiliates in Traverse City. “I’m up to my eyeballs in it right now.”

Ken Goldstein, president of New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising, said the commercial density in Michigan has been greater than in some previous state contests.

“It’s heavier than we saw in Iowa, less heavy than we saw in Florida,” he said. The tone, he added, has also been more negative than in Iowa, while less hostile than in Florida.

Santorum New Target

In both Iowa and Florida, Romney and a super-PAC supporting him called Restore Our Future were working to beat back a challenge from Newt Gingrich, a former U.S. House speaker. Their target is now Santorum, who has surged to challenge Romney following wins on Feb. 7 in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri.

Between Feb. 15 and Feb. 21, Romney’s campaign and its allies aired broadcast TV ads 505 times in the Detroit media market, CMAG data show. In the next-to-last week of the Republican campaign in Iowa, which held caucuses on Jan. 3, they ran ads 342 times in the Des Moines market. The two markets are the largest in their respective states.

The ad with the drowning man, who is carrying a briefcase and dressed in a suit, argues that Santorum’s record as a member of Congress from Pennsylvania is a reason “America is drowning in national debt.” It includes a clip of the former senator saying he’s “very proud of all the earmarks I put in bills,” referring to local projects included in spending legislation.

It started airing on Feb. 17 -- the day Romney stopped running a positive spot about his upbringing in Michigan.

Democrats Jump In

Democrats are also advertising in Michigan with an eye toward the state’s importance in November’s general election.

President Barack Obama’s campaign said today it’s starting to run an ad in the state. The spot is critical of the opposition among the Republican presidential candidates to the $82 billion federal bailout of the automotive industry.

“Don’t bet against the American auto industry,” Obama says in the ad by way of a video clip of a speech he gave in November 2010 in Kokomo, Indiana.

A super-PAC backing Obama, Priorities USA Action, started running a spot yesterday that attacks Romney’s business record and his opposition to the bailout. The ad includes a video of Romney saying “let Detroit go bankrupt” as well as an image of an opinion piece he wrote in 2008 for the New York Times that carried a headline with those same words.

Priorities USA Action paid $198,422 to a media-buying firm to air the ads, the super-PAC said in a filing today to the Federal Election Commission.

Health-Care ‘Blueprint’

Romney’s ad wasn’t the only Republican one broadcast twice during the evening news in Detroit earlier this week. A political action committee backing Santorum, the Red White and Blue Fund, also ran a spot twice during the 30-minute show.

That ad, which began airing Feb. 21, says Romney increased spending, taxes and fees as governor of Massachusetts and implemented a “blueprint” of the national health-care plan.

“How can Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama when on the vital decisions, they’re not much different?” a narrator asks.

At least 11 ads were airing on television in Michigan this week, six by the Romney campaign or Restore Our Future and five by Santorum’s campaign or the Red White and Blue Fund, according to CMAG data.

Most of the ads promoting Romney’s candidacy attack Santorum’s support for raising the federal debt ceiling and for the earmarks. The ads aiding Santorum are mixed in tone.

Sotomayor Vote

Romney’s newest ad, which began airing today, criticizes some of Santorum’s votes, including one in 1998 to approve the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, now a Supreme Court justice, to a federal appeals court.

Restore Our Future is airing three spots, including one criticizing Santorum’s 2002 vote to allow ex-felons to vote in federal elections. It juxtaposes an image of Santorum with one of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who voted the same way as Santorum when she was a senator from New York.

Santorum’s latest ad, which began airing yesterday, casts doubt on Romney’s record on issues such as abortion, health care and taxes. It says Romney requested earmarks as governor.

Santorum’s main television spot features a Romney lookalike, “Rombo,” trying to fire wads of mud at Santorum. It says Romney and Restore Our Future are using their “negative attack machine” to deflect attention from Romney’s support of the Massachusetts health-care law that’s similar to the national overhaul that Obama signed into law in 2010.

That ad is airing more than 10 times as frequently in Michigan as another Santorum spot that describes him as a “full-spectrum conservative” who is “rock-solid on values issues.” It doesn’t mention any of his opponents.

Unlimited Funds

The Red White and Blue Fund, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts on Santorum’s behalf, purchased an additional $600,000 in commercial time in Michigan, spokesman Stuart Roy said on Feb. 21. That brought its total expenditures in the state to about $1.3 million by that date, he said.

Romney’s campaign and Restore Our Future had spent $1.5 million on 2,862 TV ads in Michigan through Feb. 21, compared with $839,120 on 2,308 spots for Santorum’s campaign and the Red White and Blue Fund, the CMAG data show.

Less than one-third of Restore Our Future’s Michigan spending went toward an ad attacking Gingrich’s “baggage.” In a sign that Romney’s allies no longer view Gingrich as a threat in Michigan, Restore Our Future stopped airing that ad on Feb. 17, after more than three weeks.

Western Battleground

Restore Our Future and Romney’s campaign, as well as the Red White and Blue Fund and Santorum’s campaign, have run their advertising most frequently in the Grand Rapids media market, the CMAG data shows.

The western Michigan community is a Republican stronghold, where party supporters focus on social issues such as abortion.

Romney, 64, won Kent County, where Grand Rapids is located, in 2008 in his primary victory over Senator John McCain of Arizona, the eventual nominee.

The area promises to again be a battleground, with the latest statewide polls suggesting a close race between Romney and Santorum, 53.

Janet Mason, the president and general manager of the ABC affiliate in Grand Rapids, said her station has already sold slots for political ads during an episode of the crime drama “Castle” on Feb. 27, the evening before the primary.

Mason said for every dollar Romney and his allies have spent at her station, Santorum and supporters have spent about 65 cents.

New Dollars

While political ads aren’t a total windfall because they can cut into spending by local advertisers, Mason said the political action committees aren’t guaranteed the same lowest rates that federal law dictates for candidates and they are bringing stations new revenue.

“The super-PACs are going to change the political season,” she said. “These are going to be dollars that we haven’t seen before.”

Gingrich, U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas and super-PACs supporting them haven’t aired broadcast television ads in Michigan, CMAG data show.

In what amounts to an assist for Romney, Paul’s campaign introduced a cable ad on Feb. 20 that targets Santorum’s votes to raise the debt ceiling, for the No Child Left Behind education law and a Medicare prescription-drug program.

Most Republicans in Congress at the time voted the same way as Santorum on those measures.

To contact the reporters on this story: John McCormick in Southfield, Michigan at; Greg Giroux in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at

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