GOP's 2016 ad war slowly heating up

Story highlights

  • There are 15 candidates so far officially seeking the Republican nomination
  • So far, the top tier GOP candidates in the polls are holding back

Washington (CNN)Dollar days at the local Ford dealer are about to get pushed out by heartwarming tales of Gov. John Kasich's mailman father and Gov. Rick Perry's humble start as an Eagle Scout.

The stories candidates want to tell about their everyman roots, played out in gauzy, 30-second blips, are about to take over airwaves in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
There are 15 candidates so far officially seeking the Republican nomination. And every one of them wants to get on the air. Only the top 10 contenders, as determined by an average of national polls, will make it on stage for the first Republican debate, just a few weeks from now, and candidates are scrambling to make the cut.
    "I am tired of hyphenated Americans. We are not Indian-Americans or African-Americans, or Asian Americans, we're all Americans," intones Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, in his own twist on the typical candidate introduction spot, which features clips of his family. Jindal has been pacing himself on TV throughout Iowa for more than a month now.
    Jindal, Perry and Kasich didn't crack 5% support among Republicans in the most recent CNN / ORC poll, released late in June.
    So far, the top tier is holding back. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose supporters touted an eye-popping $114 million haul, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who formalized his candidacy this week, have yet to begin unloading on-air.
    Sen. Marco Rubio, who's sitting at the front of the GOP pack with Bush and Walker, made a surprise move last month, spending $10 million to flood the airwaves -- not now, but beginning in November, in the thick of the primary fight.
    According to federal filings for WMUR in New Hampshire, Rubio will grace "Live with Kelly and Michael" and "The View" through the morning, before book-ending the mid-day news. Then the afternoon is booked with spots airing with "General Hospital," "The Chew" and "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." Finally, ABC primetime viewers get their final dose of Rubio during the nightly news and "Jimmy Kimmel Live!"
    Kasich's supporters paid for a $1.7 million Hail Mary that went up on air last weekend in New Hampshire. In it, the often-blunt and sometimes prickly veteran politico talks about his upbringing over a light piano soundtrack and clips from smalltown America.
    "My dad carried mail on his back. They called him 'John the Mailman.' They loved him because he looked out for everyone in those neighborhoods," Kasich, who has not yet officially announced his candidacy for president, said in the ads. "I learned something from my father: Do your best to look out for other people."
    And Christie, who's launching a come-from-behind bid in the Granite State, is planning to spend $1.1 million in combined online and on-air advertising beginning next week.
    For candidates looking to get a leg up, buying up ads early can help them find a foothold in the wide, wide field of big-name Republicans, said Greg Moore, state director for Americans for Prosperity-New Hampshire.
    The name of the game, he said, is building name identification among possible voters.
    "If you're trying to catch a wave, people have to know who you are before you grab a surfboard," Moore said.
    Craig Robinson, editor of The Iowa Republican website and a veteran campaigner, said he's been impressed by the early consistency from Perry and Jindal.
    "Thus far it's been a Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal kinda air war," Robinson said. "It's been those two who have really been on TV and have had a prolonged presence."
    The question for both, however, will be whether they can maintain their pace throughout the year, he said. The stakes, in the Republican pack, are holding onto territory and even carving a slice of land, at least one large enough to appear on stage for the first Republican debates.
    "For Perry, he needs to hold onto his debate spot. For Jindal, he needs to break into that," Robinson said.
    Moore is watching for most ads to start in earnest around September, when schools are back in and families have returned from vacation. Once airtime in Manchester has been snatched up, look for the candidates (and their affiliated super PACs) to begin buying in the Boston market, which covers southern New Hampshire.
    Mike Schreurs, a veteran Republican buyer in Iowa who has advised Sen. Chuck Grassley since 1974, noted that some candidates haven't had to spend heavily yet because they're already getting plenty of exposure on their own, through "earned media."
    Others, like retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, have been making effective use of radio advertising, Schreurs said. Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina could be the next candidate hitting the radio.
    Full-blown political saturation of the airwaves hasn't happened yet, but Schreurs noted that could change in a minute once one of the big names like Walker or Bush begin unloading on air.
    "I think that's all going to change soon," he said.