06/20/2008 05:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama v. McCain: The Ad Wars Are On

Barack Obama started running this TV ad today in 18 states, to reassure voters and rock John McCain back on his heels.

The TV ad wars are on, with Barack Obama's first general election ad up today in 18 states, nearly twice as many as the 10 John McCain is up in. What is Obama doing? Three very big things, explained by various metaphors. McCain's strategy, meanwhile, seems conceptually incoherent.

Obama is calming the waters with regard to his unusual background, identifying himself and his life story with core American values. He is spreading the field, to borrow a term from sports parlance, advertising in many states never contested by a Democratic presidential candidate, forcing McCain to respond if he can. And he is flooding the zone, as the new ad comes immediately upon the heels of Obama's Thursday announcement that he will eschew public financing for the general election, relying instead on his massive Internet-based small donor fundraising machine and integrating elements of the Clinton fundraising machine. (Yes, Obama seems to have reneged by opting out of public financing. That's due to his unpredented success with small donors on the Internet, a sort of pseudo-public financing, which is why the decision won't hurt him.)

While McCain will make do with $84 million in public funding, along with whatever his Republican allies raise for other operations on his behalf, Obama will have most of the ancillary stuff PLUS at least a three to one edge in spending by their respective official campaign organizations. In other words, Obama will likely be able to spend more in each state he decides to contest, including McCain's must-win battleground states such as the big two of the last election, Ohio and Florida. And he can go into some Republican states and put them into play, forcing McCain to spend his much scarcer resources to defend what should be his own electoral base. In fact, he's doing this now in Georgia, where a new poll shows him only one point behind.

As Obama makes these moves, McCain's advertising strategy has a certain conceptual incoherence, with McCain having run two very different ads in the same markets in the past two weeks, striving to show independence from George W. Bush while actually changing key policy positions to those of the president.

Let's look at Obama's new ad, in terms of content and style, and then look at where it's running. First, here is the script: I'm Barack Obama. America is a country of strong families and strong values. My life's been blessed by both.

I was raised by a single mom and my grandparents. We didn't have much money, but they taught me values straight from the Kansas heartland where they grew up. Accountability and self-reliance. Love of country. Working hard without making excuses. Treating your neighbor as you'd like to be treated. It's what guided me as I worked my way up -- taking jobs and loans to make it through college.

It's what led me to pass up Wall Street jobs and go to Chicago instead, helping neighborhoods devastated when steel plants closed. That's why I passed laws moving people from welfare to work, cut taxes for working families and extended health care for wounded troops who'd been neglected.

I approved this message because I'll never forget those values, and if I have the honor of taking the oath of office as President, it will be with a deep and abiding faith in the country I love.

It's called, naturally, "Country I Love," a biographical spot with the freshman Illinois senator seated in front of a window with sun-dappled trees as his backdrop, speaking to camera while a montage of scenes from his life float past. While the ad speaks to the deep economic uncertainty gripping America, it's also a way for Obama to show that he's not as different as his exotic background makes him appear, that he identifies with core American values.

It's meant to be "soothing and uplifting," as one Obama advisor puts it. It is a calming-of-the-waters roiled in the primary campaign, in which Obama's appealing post-racial politics stance was rocked by the Wright Stuff and Bittergate.

Team O knows very well that attacks bringing up those questions about him again -- whether he is as angry as a few people associated with him, whether he is an elitist, whether he is "un-American" -- will return with a vengeance in the general election campaign.

The ad begins the task of defining him for the general election audience -- of reframing him -- before the opposition has the opportunity to do the job.

Some of my posters on New West Notes think the ad should be more exciting. But there will be plenty of time for more excitement. First comes the reassurance that this change-advocating figure is part of mainstream America.

Obama's ad is 60 seconds long. John McCain's ad is 30 seconds long. Obama is playing in 18 states: Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Virginia.

McCain is playing in 10 states: Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Missouri.

Already, after only two weeks of his own unchallenged advertising, McCain is on the defensive while Obama spreads the field. Georgia is a state that Republicans have long taken for granted, but the race starts out nearly deadlocked there. Virginia is a prime candidate for an Obama takeover. North Carolina is in play. Virtually all the Mountain West, which went for Bush, is very much within reach for Obama. He's even trying to force McCain to defend Alaska and North Dakota. Which, with Obama's financial advantage, admittedly won't cost him much.

While Obama spreads the playing field by going on the offensive in so many new states, and floods the zone with his ability to outspend McCain in each of those states, McCain's message seems muddled.

Two weeks ago, he launched his start-of-the-general election campaign TV ad blitz with a spot focusing on his history as the war hero son and grandson of war heroes, emphasizing that his mission is "to keep America safe." But just a few days ago, he suddenly changed that ad out for a new spot, one which emphasizes his hoped-for distance from President Bush and positions him as a champion of anti-greenhouse gas efforts.

McCain's new TV ad in battleground states is entirely different ad, one which makes no reference whatsoever to the unpopular war in Iraq and explicitly breaks with the unpopular president.

"John McCain stood up to the President, and sounded the alarm on global warming. Five years ago," intones the new female announcer. Amidst honking car horns and images of collapsing Arctic ice shelves, traffic jams, power plants, and a setting sun.

McCains's ad campaign had begun rather defensively, playing one of his hole cards as the national security candidate. Which had seemed curious, in that this is what he's famous for, so why begin with what people already know? Unless his story is not so well known as supposed and he is having difficulty locking down and firing up the conservative base.

McCain began with a very soberly, even dourly elegant effort, the spot suffused with imagery of suffering and sacrifice, with dark overtones and sad string music. The senator himself spoke to camera for the entire 30 seconds, convincingly intoning his message.

The ad which suddenly replaced it is totally different -- bright, noisy, busy -- all about independence, and independent voters.

But it comes accompanied by a McCain flip-flop on offshore oil drilling, and hints he might change his tune on the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, too. To solve the problem of record oil prices and skyrocketing gasoline prices.

There are three issues with that which will lead many to find the McCain message incoherent even as he changes his advertising strategy to a message for independents.

First, he's adopting the positions of President Bush, and the new ad is all about distance from Bush.

Second, as one of McCain's top backers, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger -- whose endorsement was critical for him winning the nomination by knocking Mitt Romney out of the race in the California primary -- points out, you don't fight the greenhouse effect by simply finding new places to drill for oil. You do it by shifting to alternative fuels.

Third, while the idea of offshore oil drilling may sound, at first blush, like a common sense solution to the present crisis to many voters, it isn't. It would take many years to even start that drilling. And in any event, there's not enough supply there to make much of a dent in the price of oil.

Barack Obama may not have the answers to the oil and gasoline crises, either. But at least his message is consistent and coherent.