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Iowa caucuses ad wars heat up
03:34 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Top Republican candidates have spent about $8 million on TV ads so far in Iowa

Despite pledges to stay positive, Newt Gingrich and others take negative tone

Super PACs also spending heavily in support of candidates they like

Des Moines, Iowa CNN  — 

Turn on the TV here in the Hawkeye State, and you’ll get inundated with a barrage of Republican presidential campaign commercials, with many of them negative in nature.

“If Washington’s the problem,” says the narrator in an ad by Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign, “why trust a congressman to fix it?” The ad goes on to criticize rival candidates Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, Rep. Michele Bachmann of neighboring Minnesota, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. “Among them, they’ve spent 63 years in Congress, leaving us with debt, earmarks and bailouts.”

Another ad goes after Gingrich: “You know what makes Barack Obama happy? Newt Gingrich’s baggage. Newt has more baggage than the airlines,” says the announcer in a spot by the independent group Restore Our Future, a Super PAC that’s supporting former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s bid for the GOP nomination.

And another attacks virtually the entire GOP field: “It’s the story of a lost city, lost opportunity, lost hope. A story of failed policies, failed leadership. A story of smooth-talking politicians; games of he said, she said and rhetoric and division,” declares the narrator of a comical ad by the Paul campaign, which targets Gingrich, Romney, Perry and Bachmann.

A week before caucuses, GOP presidential field still unsettled

That’s just a taste. The campaigns and the Super PACs have spent around $8 million so far to flood Iowa television stations with ads this month alone. And with one week to go until Iowa’s January 3 caucuses that kick off the 2012 primary and caucus calendar, expect the explosion of commercials to accelerate.

While $8 million sounds like a lot of money, ad spending will likely be down from the 2008 Iowa Republican caucuses. A main reason is the late start to traditional retail politics here in Iowa.

The 13 GOP presidential debates dominated the spotlight for much of the year, but with the caucuses closing in, Iowa is finally front and center.

“It was late starting, but all the campaigns and these outside groups are absolutely heavily engaged and heavily engaged at the highest levels now,” says Kenneth Goldstein, president of Campaign Media Analysis Group and CNN’s consultant on TV advertising.

According to CMAG, a sampling of the top candidates shows that Perry’s campaign tops the list, spending $1.57 million in Iowa this year (through Sunday) to run TV spots. Make Us Great Again, a pro-Perry Super PAC, has shelled out more than $400,000 to put up commercials in the state.

Restore Our Future, the pro-Romney group, has spent more than $800,000 in Iowa, nearly double the $478,000 the Romney campaign has shelled out to put up ads. Paul’s campaign has spent nearly $750,000 to run spots in Iowa.

While he’s basically tied with Paul and Romney for the top spot in the latest polls in Iowa among likely GOP caucus-goers, Gingrich lags when it comes to ad spending, shelling out only $213,000 so far statewide.

“Newt Gingrich wasn’t able to raise money and combine his rise in the polls with a rise in fundraising to be able to pay for political advertising in a ground game in Iowa,” adds Goldstein.

“It’s not very complicated. Usually the main reason that someone’s not airing political advertising is they don’t have enough money to air political advertising.”

After Gingrich’s rise in Iowa and national polling late last month, he faced an onslaught of negative ads, which he admits was partially responsible for his decline of his numbers in the most recent surveys.

Are the negative ads by his opponents hurting the former speaker? “Sure. … Of course they are,” Gingrich told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Tuesday in Dubuque. “I think they will have spent $5 million, $6 million, $7 million, most of it false, and the amazing thing to me is we’ve held up as well as we have.”

But the wave of negative ads may just be a taste of things to come.

“I think Iowans are seeing what all Americans are going to be seeing going into the general election,” says Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Matt Strawn. “That in an era of Super PACs, where there is unlimited corporate spending, it’s going to dramatically reshape not just the presidential races but politics at all levels. And I think Iowa has just been the first frontier on that.”