Minnesotans are getting an idea of how the candidates in the 6th Congressional District race are going to spend their mountains of cash: TV ads.
The contest between incumbent GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann and DFL challenger Tarryl Clark is the most expensive race in the country, and the two candidates are starting to turn their campaign war chests into attack ads.
Although Bachmann and Clark ads have been popping up all over the place during the past couple of weeks, the ad war actually had a slow start.
Back in June, Democrat Clark put up the first ad, seizing on statements made by Republican Bachmann about the BP oil spill.
"Michele Bachmann calls making BP pay for the cleanup extortion and said, "If I was the head of BP, I would let the signal get out there that we're not going to be chumps," said a narrator in the ad.
Bachmann waited a while to respond, amassing more cash along the way. And then, last week, she debuted an ad featuring a character named "Jim the Election Guy," who recurs in a second ad, too. The character derides Clark's voting record on taxes.
"Tarryl Clark loves taxes. She's supported raising them every year she's been in office," said "Jim."
Both campaigns objected strongly to the other's ads. Bachmann's camp said she was quoted out of context and did not want taxpayers on the hook for the BP oil cleanup. Clark's camp said their candidate has consistently voted to hold down taxes for 95 percent of Minnesotans.
To some experts, the attacks and responses have seemed formulaic.
"The striking thing about the advertising so far is how generic it is," said Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.
"You've got a Democrat attack on the Republican, not caring about the environment, being a tool of special interests and corporations; that's a very common theme in Democratic ads. And of course, the standard theme of a Republican ad is this person wants to raise your taxes," said Pitney.
Pitney thinks that predictability also pervades Clark's latest TV ad, which introduces her as a candidate and offers testimony from family and people who know her.
"She's a great mom," said one of her sons.
"Tarryl was our youth minister for many years," said her minister.
"Her dad and brother are veterans, so she looks out for us," said a veteran.
Political science professor Stephen Smith of Washington University rates Clark's introductory ad higher than Pitney does. Smith said the ad paints her as a person of traditional values, which is important in the Republican-leaning 6th District.
But that doesn't make the case against Bachmann, Smith said. When Clark's camp does launch a more pointed attack against Bachmann, it would do well to use humor, he said. Smith said that's what makes Bachmann's ads with "Jim the Election Guy" so compelling.
"The question is whether she can follow through on that in a way that still scores points against Bachmann," said Smith.
Smith said both candidates need successful ads, so they can pull in more fundraising dollars and create yet more ads. Bachmann has much more cash than Clark, so, Smith said, she has more flexibility. She can launch attack ads and respond more nimbly to Clark.
Many experts, Smith included, say the race is competitive. Bachmann has both ardent fans and enemies. Some of those enemies are keen to see her fall and are sending money to Clark. But Smith said if Bachmann's detractors aren't convinced Clark can win, they'll stop writing checks.
"So it's quite important for Tarryl Clark to prove herself. By the end of September, she has to show there's evidence she's closing the gap a bit, and that Bachmann is vulnerable, that she's been bruised with a couple of the ads," said Smith.
Smith notes that running ads in the Twin Cities market, which only intersects with a portion of the 6th District, is a pretty ineffective use of both candidates' money. Given that ad campaigns run a few hundred thousand dollars, that's a lot of money to spend blanketing Twin Cities viewers, most of whom can't even vote in the district.