Mack The Knife Vs. Geek Chic

In the red corner is the ex- songwriter from Austin, Texas, backed by the talent who brought you the talking dog that loves Taco Bell. In the blue corner is the wonkish ex-pollster from Providence, R.I., who prefers the edit room to the talk-show circuit. One taped an ad called "Wacky" that turned the rival campaign into the Keystone Kops. The other taped an ad called "Commitment" that showed nothing but the candidate talking about his top three policy priorities. Between now and the debates in October, the ads made by Mark McKinnon and Michael Donilon will be the closest you'll see to a prime-time clash between George W. Bush and John Kerry. Together they'll fight their battle of the brands by spending more on TV than anyone in presidential history.

The air war is more than just a clash of personalities between the outgoing McKinnon and the retiring Donilon. Campaigns are formed in the image of their candidate, and the rival ad makers toil under men with sharply different leadership styles. Bush states on screen that he approves of every ad, as all candidates are required to do under new campaign laws. But his aides say he takes a hands-off approach to his own sales pitch. Where Bill Clinton edited his own party's ad scripts in 1996, Bush prefers to be briefed on the big themes of his commercials. "I can't remember the last time he saw one of the ads," says one senior administration official. Compare that with Kerry, who is scrupulous about checking the scripts against his own record for accuracy and overkill. "He's not a tinkerer, but he's very careful, particularly on the substance and the issues," says Donilon. "He cares about the details and how we say things."

Bush, the M.B.A. president, has a sprawling team under McKinnon and chief strategist Matthew Dowd, one that works more like a cutthroat Madison Avenue agency than a bunch of political junkies. McKinnon draws on 10 different groups across the country, using their regional expertise and occasionally pitting one group against another to see who generates the best ideas. Kerry, the policy maven, has the smallest of teams: Donilon and his two partners, strategists Bob Shrum and Tad Devine. The team shrunk last month when Kerry's primary-season ad guy, Jim Margolis, quit in a contract dispute. Looking for more outside mojo, the fast-evolving Kerry crew met last week with Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, the New York agency that helped turn Target discount stores into something cool.

Whether McKinnon is more effective than Donilon depends on which poll you care to read. The Bush campaign says its ads have driven up Kerry's negatives, while the Kerry campaign shoots back with last week's polls showing Bush falling steeply on Iraq and terrorism. Of course, the numbers are also driven by hard news--ranging from last week's shocking pictures out of Iraq to the latest upswing in jobs. Bush is now winding down a first wave of ads in which two of every three were negative about Kerry. Kerry's aides believe those attack ads turn off voters and are out of kilter with the national mood. For his part, Kerry is only now airing his own stirring bio ads, taped three weeks ago with his family in their Boston home, after a far drier spot detailing his prescription for Iraq.

By the end of this month the Bush campaign will have spent $60 million on TV. On the other side, Kerry's bio spots broke all records for a single buy, costing $27.5 million this month alone. The numbers dwarf those of Al Gore's 2000 campaign, which spent just $9 million between securing the nomination in March and the summer convention. Whatever the style of the image-makers and their ads, one thing's for sure: this kind of prizefight doesn't come cheap.

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