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Subtler Entry From Masters of Attack Ads

Jeremy W. Peters|The New York Times
Tuesday, 22 May 2012 | 12:49 PM ET

WASHINGTON — The ad is the work of two of the most fearsome players in Republican politics: Larry McCarthy, the producer behind the infamous Willie Horton commercial in 1988, and Crossroads GPS, the political battle squad founded by Karl Rove.

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When it makes its debut Wednesday in 10 swing states as the centerpiece of a $25 million campaign, it is expected to become one of the most heavily broadcast political commercials of this phase of the general election.

Yet what Mr. McCarthy and Crossroads have produced is not the kind of searing denunciation of President Obama that their track records would suggest. More soft-pedal than Swift Boat, the 60-second advertisement, complete with special effects, is a deeply researched, delicately worded story of a struggling family; its relatively low-key tone is all the more striking, coming at a point in the campaign when each side is accusing the other of excessive negativity.

Behind the story of the ad’s creation rests one of the greatest challenges for Republicans in this election: how to develop a powerful line of attack against a president who remains well liked even by people who are considering voting against him.

The concept for the newest advertisement and even some of the lines in the script were culled directly from focus groups of undecided and sometimes torn voters that were held over nearly a year. As Crossroads strategists would learn after 18 different focus groups and field tests, from Missouri to Colorado to Ohio to Florida, the harshest anti-Obama jabs backfire with many Americans.

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.”

In interviews with voters, Crossroads strategists picked up on some common sentiments that they concluded could provide a clear rationale for voters to deny Mr. Obama a second term.

Some said they felt that the president was an eloquent communicator, but that his actions had failed to live up to his words. They said they thought the country’s budget problems had gotten out of hand, yet the government kept spending recklessly — like someone with maxed-out credit cards. And they reported being worried that their children would not have the same opportunities to get ahead as they had.

All these thoughts made their way into Mr. McCarthy’s script. But one exchange in particular, at a focus group in St. Louis in October, gave Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Law the idea for the ad, which they named, innocuously enough, “Basketball.”

A woman described how her 32-year-old son, burdened by student loans and unable to make ends meet, had moved back home. “That particular group had several women who basically told the same story,” Mr. McCarthy said.

The script, which he started writing that day in October, features a composite character from the focus groups. “Kind of like President Obama’s girlfriends,” he noted dryly, referring to Mr. Obama’s acknowledgment that a girlfriend he referred to in his book “Dreams From My Father” was a composite of several women he knew.

The ad opens with a woman talking about her family’s financial woes. “I always loved watching the kids play basketball,” the actress says, her voice heavy with worry as she glances out at her backyard. “I still do, even though things have changed.”

Her face quickly morphs into an old woman’s. Her skin is wrinkled, her hair gray. She explains how her adult children have moved back into the house because they are unable to find jobs. And she is not sure she can afford to retire now.

“I supported President Obama because he spoke so beautifully,” she says. “He promised change. But things changed for the worse.”

Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, dismissed the commercial’s premise. “However many millions Mitt Romney’s special interest allies spend won’t change the facts,” he said, noting that the economy has strengthened considerably since 2008.

In previous presidential campaigns, Republicans have relished mocking their Democratic opponents. They made commercials with video of Michael S. Dukakis riding in a tank wearing an oversize helmet, leaving viewers with images that many thought made him look silly and unpresidential.

They used pictures of Senator John Kerry windsurfing to create ads that ridiculed him as a flip-flopper. Bill Clinton, with his admission of drug use, accusations of draft dodging and extramarital affairs, was easily lampooned.

But Republicans acknowledge that they have always faced a more complicated target in Mr. Obama, whose candidacy four years ago struck a deep emotional chord with many Americans.

That is why the Crossroads ad features a heavy repetition of the word “change.” Many participants in the focus groups cited the Obama mantra of hope and change as a reason they supported him in 2008, but they said they now felt let down.

“Criticizing President Obama is a challenging proposition in terms of ads because a lot of your swing voters this year voted for him in 2008,” Mr. McCarthy said. “They genuinely liked him, they thought he had the right message, they thought he was different.”

“Basketball” is similar in its message and tone to a commercial Mr. McCarthy produced for Crossroads last year called “Wake Up.” That ad opens with a shot of a clock showing the time as 3:01 a.m., a nod to the famous “3 a.m.” ad that Hillary Rodham Clinton used in 2008 to try to portray Mr. Obama as unprepared for the presidency.

The actress in “Wake Up” says, “Sometimes it’s hard to sleep,” as she climbs out of bed to check on her sleeping daughter. “Lately, I worry a lot about my kids. What’s their future going to be like?” The ad tested higher with voters than any Crossroads had ever produced.

Using actors is not a common tactic for political attack ads, which often rely on stern-sounding announcers to recite a series of damning facts or on testimonials from aggrieved citizens, like a recent series from the Obama campaign that questions Mr. Romney’s history as a private equity executive.

But in this case, Crossroads felt that a scripted story would soften a tough message about complicated issues.

“The challenge is obviously that the issues we want to talk about — health care, the economy, debt — it’s not like kittens and adoption. They’re tough issues to communicate in a warm way,” Mr. Law said.

A fictional family also allowed for more creative flexibility in creating a rebuttal to the president’s message that although things may not be great, the country is moving in the right direction.

The alternative point of view the Republican strategists are trying to sell to voters is a hard truth wrapped in soft packaging: even though the headlines might be looking good now, the American dream is still in tatters.

“There are some who believe he’s made things worse; then there’s a larger group of people who are upset at him because he hasn’t fixed these problems,” Mr. Law said. “And the larger point of these ads is that the agenda he’s pursued has not made things better.”

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