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Branding McCain: Straight Talker or Bush Clone?

UPDATE, 4:30 pm: The Republican National Committee has responded to Progressive Media USA's ad buy with a statement that does a bit of branding of its own. "With the Democratic Party embroiled in a bitter debate over elitism, it's no surprise George Soros would have something to say," said RNC spokesman Alex Conant, referring to the billionaire philanthropist who has funded a number of liberal outside groups in recent years.

But, if the Democratic media buyer The Fix checked in with today is right about the extent of the buy, it's the smallest of potatoes for a man with a checkbook like Soros. According to this source, Progressive Media USA has spent just $7,000 on ads running today and tomorrow in the Washington, D.C. media market. If that's the extent of the buy, the first effort by the progressive organization amounts to little more than a video press release.

ORIGINAL POST

The first -- and most important -- fight of any general election is over how voters perceive the two major party candidates. Given the extended state of the Democratic primary process, the perception battle is for now focused on solely on presumptive GOP nominee John McCain.

For the last month or so, McCain has had a nice run of press coverage -- focused on his biography via his "Service to America" tour. This has led many Democratic strategists to fret that McCain is repositioning himself for the general election without any real push back from the other side.

Cue the emergence of Progressive Media USA, a group led by former conservative turned liberal media critic David Brock -- an effort whose existence was first reported by Politico's Ben Smith last week.

The group began running an ad today on CNN and MSNBC blasting McCain as a clone of the current president. Here it is:

The commercial splices in audio clips of McCain and Bush saying similar things on the economy, and features the now famous Bush-McCain embrace -- a photo you are sure to see MUCH more of during the fall campaign.

It's in the same vein as the "McSame" ad that Campaign to Defend America -- the progenitor of Progressive Media USA -- produced and ran in Pennsylvania and Ohio earlier this year.

Meanwhile, McCain's campaign is working hard to steer the perception contest. McCain is up with a new ad of his own -- timed to correspond with a major speech on the economy he just delivered at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

The ad makes no mention of President Bush and instead portrays the Arizonan as someone who can (and has) brought people together for the good of the country.

"As President, John McCain will take the best ideas from both parties to spur innovation, invest in people and create jobs," the ad's narrator says. "Big ideas for serious problems," the narrator says at the spot's close.

It is McCain's second ad of the general election; the first ran in New Mexico earlier this month and relied heavily on McCain's personal story.

The dueling ads -- on tax day, no less! -- lay out the basic parameters of the fight to define McCain that will transpire over the coming months.

Democrats -- and their affiliate groups -- will argue that electing McCain is a continuation of the Bush presidency on a variety of issues with Iraq and the economy front and center.

McCain and the Republican National Committee, on the other hand, will play into the pre-existing brand surrounding the senator -- a brand that brings to mind independence, straight talk and bipartisanship. (For more on the McCain brand, read Mike Shear and Juliet Eilperin's piece that ran in The Post over the weekend.)

While the fight over how the average voters perceives a presidential candidate is always an important part of any contest, it is especially important when considering McCain.

Why?

Because so much of McCain's appeal is based on the compelling personal story of his capture and torture in a North Vietnamese prison camp, his subsequent return to the United States and his election to public office.

McCain's appeal to voters is McCain; if you watched his come-from-behind primary victory in the GOP primaries, the messaging was almost entirely devoid of issues. Instead, the ads McCain ran, the stump speech he gave and even his performances in debate were all centered on who he is as a person, not what he believes.

Given the centrality of McCain's biography in his campaign for president, the fight to define just who he is (Free thinking renegade? Or Bush Clone?) is critical for both sides as spring turns to summer.

By Chris Cillizza  |  April 15, 2008; 12:38 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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