By LIZ SIDOTI | The Associated Press
WASHINGTON - Democrat John Kerry is launching a $17 million monthlong ad campaign, targeting Hispanics with a commercial unveiled Friday, appealing to black audiences and making his first push into Republican-leaning Virginia.
“This is a gesture of strength,” Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry’s campaign manager, said Thursday of the Virginia foray.
The presumptive nominee will have the state to himself. A senior adviser to President Bush, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the re-election campaign will not respond with ads of its own because Republicans believe the state is solidly GOP.
Virginia, a state that Bush won by 8 percentage points in 2000 and that has gone to Republicans in presidential elections for decades, will be the third such state that Kerry will try to put in play.
The campaign, making good on its promise to expand the number of contested states from the 17 already seeing heavy levels of commercials, started running ads earlier this month in Colorado and Louisiana, two states Bush captured in 2000.
The venture into the two GOP-favored states all but forced Bush to broadcast commercials there to keep Kerry from making inroads. Bush continues to run ads in Colorado but stopped in Louisiana, where advisers say he has a strong lead.
Starting Friday, Kerry will run commercials tailored to Hispanics - arguably the most volatile voting group - on Spanish-language networks in six states. The campaign says the ad honors Hispanic veterans while highlighting Kerry’s “lifetime of service and strength.”
Bush has run several weeks of such ads since March in Florida, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico.
Kerry’s new commercials on mainstream media outlets begin Wednesday in 20 states, including Virginia, and nationally on cable networks. His 60-second biographical ads - in an unprecedented $25 million buy - ended Thursday, and his strategists have said the next wave would flesh out his position on issues.
The Democrat’s campaign has turned toward Virginia, believing that population shifts over the past few years had made the state more northern in its politics and more Democratic in its voting patterns. Kerry’s advisers say the race is close in the state, and they believe the decorated Vietnam veteran can do well along the coast, which has a heavy military presence.
Other glimmers of hope for Kerry: the state’s growing regions - such as the Washington, D.C., suburbs - lean Democratic and Virginia’s governor, Mark Warner, is a centrist Democrat.
“There’s a tremendous opening,” said Tad Devine, a Kerry strategist. “When you put all those things together, we see Virginia as a state John Kerry can win.”
Warner agreed that the landscape is ripe for a Democratic presidential win, saying parts of rural Virginia still are feeling the sting of the economic downturn.
In an interview Thursday, he said Kerry’s early investment in his state “demonstrates that this is going to be a national effort and that the South has the potential to be very competitive.”
Warner and Kerry strategists acknowledge that victories in Virginia or other Southern states where the GOP has had a lock won’t be easy, but they say it can be done.
At the very least, competing in states such as Virginia may force Bush to defend his turf, and any money spent in GOP-leaning states means less money available to spend in key states such as Ohio or Florida.
It’s a strategy that Democrat Al Gore had hoped to execute in 2000 - particularly in Virginia and North Carolina - but he didn’t have the cash. That’s not the case for Kerry, who has broken numerous fund-raising records this year. He can spend as much as he can raise because he rejected public financing for the primaries. Gore accepted the public money.
Also next month, Kerry will expand his advertising to media outlets targeting blacks, and will run TV ads on cable’s Black Entertainment Television. Black lawmakers met with Kerry’s campaign a few weeks ago to stress the importance of targeting ads to black communities to help mobilize the Democratic vote.
Meanwhile, a group of centrist Democrats, the New Democrat Network, has given Democrats a presence in those states with ads touting the Democratic agenda and criticizing Bush.
By the end of June, Kerry will have spent at least $60 million on TV ads since early March.
Bush’s latest buys - $7 million through mid-June to run a new ad assailing Kerry in 18 states and $2.5 million to advertise on national cable networks in June - means the president will have spent roughly $80 million during the same period.
AP Political Writer Ron Fournier contributed to this report.