No presidential candidate has spent more money on ads than Mitt Romney. Polls show that strategy is paying off — at least at this early stage — in the key states of Iowa and New Hampshire, where he has notable leads over his Republican rivals.
Romney is buying time on television stations to air his latest commercial, called "Ocean," in those two states and in South Carolina, home to another early primary vote.
In the ad, he argues on behalf of protecting children from a polluted culture. In so doing, Romney is trying to position himself as the true social conservative in the race. He is also weaving in a few hidden pitches.
The ad begins on the beach, with a montage of waves in sepia tone and shots of kids running on the sand.
Romney, who narrates, starts by citing Peggy Noonan – a Wall Street Journal columnist who wrote many of President Reagan's most eloquent speeches.
That's a pretty obscure reference, admits Republican media strategist Dan Schnur, who's sitting this race out.
"Most casual voters don't know who Peggy Noonan is," Schnur says. But he says there is nonetheless a good reason to invoke her, especially for a candidate seeking to assume Reagan's mantle of cheerful conservatism.
"Citing someone like Noonan, a leading cultural conservative voice, sends out a very subtle set of cultural and political connectors, if you will, to an audience that may not know much about Mitt Romney at this early stage in the campaign," Schnur says.
Romney quotes Noonan talking about American culture as "the ocean in which our children swim." He continues: "She described a cesspool of violence and sex and drugs and indolence and perversions."
In the ad, the waves look rough as they crash over rocks, and the water looks murky. Then Romney says he wants to clean up the water our kids are swimming in — metaphorically, of course. The music lightens as he continues:
"I'd like to keep pornography from coming up on their computers. I'd like to keep drugs off the streets... I'd like to see less violence and sex on TV and in video games and in movies."
What the gazillionaire former Massachusetts governor doesn't say is how he would accomplish this string of goals. If Romney were president, he might have to expand government programs to regulate the entertainment and communications industries --- a message that could resonate with social conservatives, but turn off Republicans who don't like big, new government programs.
A Hidden Jab at Giuliani and Thompson?
But that's not really what Romney's up to here, according to several political observers. (A search of the candidate's Web site did not turn up any actual policy prescriptions.)
It's a soft ad — one that wouldn't run during a neck-and-neck competition late in a campaign. And though it is not an attack ad, Romney is trying to use the TV spot to hold off two key opponents.
There's the thrice-married Rudolph Giuliani-- who, in case you didn't know, was the mayor of sin central, New York City ---- and the former Sen. Fred Thompson – who used to be a movie actor (read Hollywood) and lobbyist (K Street). Both start with national recognition, but both could be vulnerable on so-called "family values" grounds.
The Romney campaign wouldn't talk about its message. Despite a spokesman's repeated promises, no one called back.
And It's Environmental, Too!
There's one last twist.
I showed this commercial to normal people – colleagues, political pros, normal citizens — without sound. Almost to a person, they had no idea it was about a polluted culture.
"The visual was great," said paralegal Irini Killian, when I met her at the New York Midtown Library. "I thought it was going to be about the environment and about caring about everything. I didn't get that at all."
And the funny thing is that almost everyone has the same reaction. June Speakman, a political science professor at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, says that's no mistake. When Romney talks about cleaning up the water, for example, it turned blue.
"Every word is carefully chosen. The person who speaks is carefully chosen," Speakman says. "The text that appears on the screen is carefully chosen. And the visuals, as with this ocean, is carefully chosen."
Speakman says that pitch is aimed at moderates who might be concerned about children and about the environment, as well as social conservatives.
"Many conservative Christian religious leaders now have taken an environmental perspective and see themselves as stewards of the environment," Speakman says.
Speakman says the ad's dissonant images and words may prove too confusing for viewers. But Republican Dan Schnur says he thinks the Romney commercial may well prove successful.