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Karl Rove, Crossroads GPS Go 'Subtle' This Week, Suddenly Get Lots Of Positive Coverage

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The New York Times' Jeremy Peters reports that the new Crossroads GPS ad "Basketball" is set to "become one of the most heavily broadcast political commercials of this phase of the general election."

It's already one of the most heavily written about political commercials of this phase of the general election, thanks to Peters and the Times, who provide a 1,200 word exegesis on the creation of the ad, alongside an "Anatomy of" feature that explains to readers what they are seeing as they watch the one-minute spot. All of which is fairly surprising given the fact that the ad -- as acknowledged right up front -- isn't exactly that hard-hitting.

In fact, Crossroads' last ad, entitled "Obama's Promise" and released just six days ago, was made of much sterner stuff. But that ad received only a passing mention in an earlier article by Peters. In that piece, he wrote that Crossroads was helping to launch what would perhaps become "an unusually heavy and vicious air war as outside political groups assume a larger role than ever."

But last week's political theses are so seven days ago!

By contrast, the new ad is almost painfully generic. While it carries some dramatic touches -- it includes the "morphing" effect that was considered to be cutting edge back in 1991, when Pacific Data Images created it for Michael Jackson's video for "Black or White" -- its message boils down to the same fears about rising debt that Beltway hacks have sounded off about for years, only with much less hysteria. The ad even does that outside-group issue ad trick at the end where it just encourages viewers to lobby the White House to a different point of view, as if Crossroads would somehow get out of the anti-Obama game if tweaks were made to his policy initiatives.

The new, "subtle" ad was created by perennial bloody-shirt waver Karl Rove and Larry "I made the Willie Horton ad" McCarthy. But the message that Rove and the Crossroads Crew apparently want to convey, at this time, is that they aren't ready to be pointlessly brutal with their election ads. Not really! Or, at least not yet. Please just ignore the previous reports of their "hard-hitting ad" that ran in the same newspaper, a week ago.

Today, the Times allows the people behind Crossroads to retrench themselves as "subtler" provocateurs. They explain how contemporary polling and focus group research reveals that President Barack Obama is well-liked, if not well-approved, and that this cautions against tossing the high, hard stuff that they were tossing six days ago, but whatever, forget all that:

Middle-of-the-road voters who said they thought the country was on the wrong track were unmoved when they heard arguments that the president lacks integrity. And they did not buy assertions that he is a rabid partisan with a radical liberal agenda that is wrecking America.

"They are not interested in being told they made a horrible mistake," said Steven J. Law, president of Crossroads GPS and the affiliated "super PAC," American Crossroads. "The disappointment they're now experiencing has to be handled carefully."

All of this work pointed to a path forward: tap into the generic feelings about being let down by what's happened in the Obama presidency (and obviously, eliding over the broken economy it was tasked with rebuilding from scratch) without being -- you know -- mean about it. In this way, Crossroads mirrors the message that comes out of the Romney campaign (on most days) -- that the president is a nice guy who is in over his head. (Of course there's no way that Crossroads and the Romney campaign are coordinating, because that would be soooo illegal!)

In the end, we have what's described as a "hard truth wrapped in soft packaging," which isn't what anyone expected when Karl Rove got his hands on millions of dollars to indulge his political id. That said, let's remember something: Karl Rove has millions of dollars to indulge his political id. So while we may be in this weird period of focus-group recommended restraint, don't expect the restraint to continue.

There are reasons for this. First, it's an article of faith among a large portion of the GOP base that Sen. John McCain lost in 2008 because he wasn't willing to throw heat at Obama and turn the month of October into an all-Jeremiah-Wright-all-the-time sick-a-doo fiesta. Last week's revelation of a proposed ad campaign to do just that served as a reminder that there are plenty of people with money to burn who've a yen to fight the 2012 battle from the gutter. (This Crossroads ad, and the access the group gave the Times, does a nice job of washing away the nastiness of last week's big super PAC story, doesn't it?) And if Republicans are reminded too much of McCain's perceived failures as they watch Romney prosecute the Obama administration in a too-gentle fashion, they could end up discouraged.

Beyond that, though, this particular period of the election season isn't particularly good for the bean-balls, as most of the electorate is largely tuning out ahead of the fall campaign. Sure, the conventional wisdom is that now is the critical time where candidates fight to define their opponents, but as Brendan Nyhan observed last week while sizing up Team Obama Reelect's efforts to "define" Romney, the conventional wisdom is wrong:

More generally, reporters should refrain from overstating the importance they place on early-stage campaign squabbles. According to [political scientists Christopher Wlezien and Robert Erikson], the real action comes in the final 100 days, which is when campaign shocks start to "persist to affect the outcome of Election Day" (typically in the direction we would expect given the state of the economy).

Naturally, Nyhan points back to the earlier Jeremy Peters story that mentioned Crossroads' earlier ad, in which Peters describes the existence of broad "concerns" that money invested in political ads at this stage in the game "will be wasted on people who are not paying much attention five and a half months before Election Day." Hmmm. Maybe Jeremy Peters should read more stories by this Jeremy Peters fellow!

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