Bush, Kerry Partisans Battle in Mass Media

John Kerry and George Bush are stumping hard for your vote. But so are Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh, Bruce Springsteen and Toby Keith, Al Franken and Ann Coulter.

Who are you going to listen to?

"Bruce Springsteen and these artists and filmmakers in some ways have much more credibility and experience talking to the American people than politicians do," says Eli Pariser, executive director of the left-leaning activist group, MoveOn PAC. "So I think having them step forward makes people pay attention in a way that is critical in an election where so much is at stake and which is so hotly contested."

Call it politics in the age of product placement: You may want to Tivo out the candidates' political ads, but the same messages could be embedded in the movie you're watching, the book you're reading, or the music or radio program you're listening to.

"People who look at the campaign as just what the candidates say and so forth are really missing a large part of the campaign," says James E. Campbell, a political science professor at the University at Buffalo of the State University of New York who has written about the effectiveness of campaigning.

‘Pretty Smart’

Increasingly, groups and individuals are running parallel presidential campaigns beyond the bandwidth of the official campaigns, political scientists say. So even as Bush and Kerry deliver their messages to limited audiences on television and at campaign stops, groups such as MoveOn are broadening the scope of the presidential race into more mainstream areas such as movies, music, theater and radio.

MoveOn played a promotional role as Michael Moore's anti-Bush documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11, set records at the box office, and music stars like Bruce Springsteen denounced the president's policies.

"Usually, in the last 20 or so years, you would have quickie biographies of candidates, or quickie position books … but that's usually all you had before the election," says Dennis W. Johnson, associate dean of George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. "This is really unprecedented, to have Michael Moore-type documentaries and also to have political books coming out at this time of the campaign."

Even some conservatives sound a bit impressed.

"To get your message out in movies like Fahrenheit 9/11 and TV shows like The West Wing is pretty smart for the liberals," says Stephen Moore, president of the conservative group Club for Growth. "There have been people who've said, 'Gee, what Club for Growth should do is finance a movie.' … It's something we won't be able to do in this election cycle because there's [little more than] eight weeks to go."

‘Have They Made an Impact?’

For now, Moore says Club for Growth feels more comfortable sticking with the tried and true — raising funds and running television commercials.

"For all of the news attention that groups like [MoveOn] have gotten, for all the money they've spent, have they made an impact?" he asks. "I don't know."

MoveOn and other independent groups also do TV ads. And the method's continued effectiveness may be shown by weeks of controversy over ads by the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth questioning Kerry's military record.

Political scientists also are uncertain whether the heightened activism will work. Many wonder whether people will be driven to the polls, react with a backlash, or just tune out the politics and enjoy the tunes.

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