Primetime stump

Obama buys half-hour to pitch on CBS, NBC

Barack Obama has purchased a half-hour of primetime television on CBS and NBC for a nationwide pitch to voters. The ad will run at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 29 — six days before the general election.

The direct purchase of such a large block of national airtime right before an election used to be more commonplace before campaigns began to focus their endgame strategies exclusively on battleground states. Such a move is not without precedent in modern presidential politics, however — Ross Perot made a similar purchase in 1992.

The special is a smart move for the Obama campaign, said Larry Sabato, a political analyst and director of the Center of Politics at the University of Virginia.

"Obama's theme is not just change but unity, so he's appealing to the whole nation rather than a handful of toss-up states," Sabato said. "He wants to win the popular vote by a good margin, which will enable him to govern."

And he's got the cash for it.

"This is another indication, if there needs to be any more, that Barack Obama's got more money than (available) television time to buy," said Evan Tracey, COO of the Campaign Media Analysis Group in Arlington, Va.

Whether John McCain's campaign will do the same remains to be seen, though there's one big thing moving against it: money. Unlike Obama, who rejected public financing of the presidential campaign, the Republican candidate is accepting it. That means the McCain camp is limited in the amount of money that it can spend and raise, and its TV buying has been limited mostly to ads in battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Florida.

"There will be no second-guessing the Obama campaign on decisions involving resources," Tracey said. "He's not doing this and pulling down (ad) buys in Florida. This is not an either/or decision. They've got 25 days and unlimited amounts of money."

Neither Sabato nor Tracey could say whether the McCain campaign could buy its own time on the networks, even if it wanted to, because of the cost involved. The networks are obligated to offer the similar time and the same price to McCain.

After Obama bought about $5 million worth of ads during the Summer Olympics telecasts including national time, McCain bought about $6 million worth in the Games. But it might be more difficult now, with money and time tight and hard choices to be made. The McCain camp already has pulled its ads from Michigan, once considered a key battleground state.

"This is where Obama being off public financing really boxes in McCain," Tracey said. "I don't think this is a move that the McCain campaign would be able to match."

Beyond Perot's 30-minute campaign ads in the last month of the 1992 presidential race, you have to reach back even further for similar instances. Sabato said that national broadcasts were not uncommon in the 1960s and early '70s, when TV time wasn't as expensive and current campaign financing limits weren't in place. It's also a common strategy for candidates for statewide offices to patch together stations on a statewide telecast.

CBS and NBC spokespeople declined comment. Sources said the Obama camp also talked to Fox, but the network might not be able to accommodate the campaign because the time period might conflict with a potential Game 6 of the World Series.

The buy will push CBS comedy "The New Adventures of Old Christine" to 8:30 p.m. and pre-empt "Gary Unmarried." NBC typically airs the hourlong "Knight Rider" in the slot and likely will throw in a comedy repeat at 8:30 p.m. The buy is being placed by Washington-based ad firm GMMB. Obama's ad will air on the night before the start of November sweep.

In February, the Hillary Clinton campaign bought time on the Hallmark Channel, a nearly fully distributed cable channel, for a town-hall meeting before Super Tuesday.

James Hibberd reported from Los Angeles; Paul J. Gough reported from Nashville. Nellie Andreeva in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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