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McDonnell & Kaine Agree (On Cute Kids)

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Bob McDonnell's new TV commercial touting his nice family guy credentials for being elected governor of Virginia is a tribute to the folks who made Gov. Tim Kaine's very similar spot just four years ago.

But if imitation in the advertising craft is seen as something closer to plagiarism, then McDonnell's "Family" spot is a sign of a campaign that's trying way too hard to divorce itself from the Republican party's damaged image as a collection of socially conservative sourpusses.

Here's the McDonnell ad, which features the GOP candidate sitting on the front porch while a procession of his five children hurry by, demonstrating their good cheer and busy lives--all apparently in service of communicating the fact that one of the candidate's daughters served in Iraq, that he's a good dad who taught his boys to play soccer, and that the former attorney general is an all-around lovable family man.

Now here's Tim Kaine's spot from 2005, in which his three children tell us that their father "likes helping people" and "brings people together." The visual message here is nearly identical to that of the McDonnell spot: This is a guy who lives an ordinary, busy suburban life, tosses around the ball with the kids, juggles all the stresses you do at home, yet maintains his good humor.

The Kaine spot works more effectively because it pulls off the funny bits, whereas the McDonnell ad seems more earnest than humorous. The precious exchange in the Kaine spot goes like this:

ANNELLA KAINE (explains that the kids "don't mind sharing" their dad with the people of Virginia.") But can we still go camping next year when you're governor?

TIM KAINE: You know it, honey.

ANNELLA KAINE: How about outlawing homework?

TIM KAINE: Ha, kids.

There's nothing unique about using a candidate's family in a TV ad, but there is a mini-trend in political advertising to soften a candidate's image by using the kids to poke some fun at dad. Credit for making this family of spots work goes largely to GOP consultant Scott Howell (better known in Virginia for his all-too-tough ads for Jerry Kilgore, who lost to Kaine in '05.) Here's Howell's work for Minnesota Senate candidate Mark Kennedy (he lost):

Here's Howell's handicraft again, this time letting South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint's two daughters do all the work and lay on all the charm on behalf of dear old dad:

And here's probably the granddaddy of this sub-genre, Howell's work for South Dakota Sen. John Thune in 2004:

McDonnell is surely right to emphasize his calm, solid personality, especially as he gears up for a possible race against Democrat Terry McAuliffe, the ex-Clinton fundraiser whom the Republicans are itching to portray as an ethically-elastic Mr. Moneybags. But you can expect any of the three Democrats vying to take on McDonnell to hit back in kind, presenting themselves as genial suburban dads as well. And McAuliffe, at least, is likely to pull off the laugh lines with a little more zing.

By Marc Fisher |  May 15, 2009; 9:37 AM ET  | Category:  Bob McDonnell , Politics , Tim Kaine , Virginia
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Nice to see McDonnell with his family in the commercial. What I don't see anywhere in the commercial is the word "Republican". I wonder if any of the Democrats will point this out as the campaign continues?

Posted by: bernydoode00 | May 15, 2009 10:32 AM

I saw this on TV this morning and didn't see who it was for (our mornings are busy too!) My only negative reaction was that I didn't like the reference to sexual predators. Put that in a different ad. It's creepy to show your own children (even though older now) and talk about that subject. I liked the ending, though.

Posted by: fairfaxvoter | May 15, 2009 10:37 AM

I noticed the absence of the word Republican as well. I struck me as odd because in the past it was very prominent in every advertisement. I guess not, this time around...

Posted by: venus31 | May 15, 2009 1:44 PM

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