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Ad Watch: Kay Bailey Hutchison

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“I’m gonna do everything I can to stop the government takeover of health care,” Kay Bailey Hutchison declares at the git-go of her first TV commercial of the gubernatorial campaign. This was Hutchison’s November apologia, her attempt to cast the whole “Why won’t she resign and run for governor?” question behind her. But for Hutchison, every ad matters as she tries to regain the ground she lost to Gov. Rick Perry by bumbling her way through the campaign’s first year. The only other statewide candidate who has to rely as heavily on TV, for different reasons, is Farouk Shami, the hair-care magnate who’s decided to make the Democratic primary for governor his first attempt at public office. So how are Kay and Fauouk doing? Today, we’ll look at Hutchison. If you’re measuring impact by the ads’ effect on polling, she’s doing lousy. This week’s poll had her running behind Perry by double digits. One of many reasons: the ads. The first one, in which Hutchison sets out to explain her about-face on resigning from the Senate, features the senator staring placidly into the camera and talking directly to folks, just the way it’s supposed to be done. But what she says only addresses the question—why are you staying in Washington to run for governor?—in the most oblique of ways. Hutchison’s gurus clearly decided that her best line of argument was to say she was staying to “defeat government-run health care.” But the ad makes no argument about why she is essential to that effort. And it’s bound to raise more questions in many viewers’ minds. Like: Why don’t you just stay in the Senate, if big issues are going to come along at the national level and seem more important than devoting yourself to Texas? Do we want a governor like that? Hutchison obviously wasn’t going to answer those questions directly in her ad. But she should have had a script that allowed her to pierce the skepticism that could have easily been anticipated. As it is, Hutchison just comes off as self-important (“Everybody needs me,” you can easily imagine her saying. “Whatever shall I do?”). Hutchison’s second ad, “Tough as Texas,” continues that “fighter” theme, which is starting to remind me of Sen. John Cornyn’s unintentionally uproarious “Big Bad John” video during his most recent Senate campaign. Will we soon be seeing Hutchison in a hat and Wranglers, riding out on the prairie, rifle at the ready? Not quite yet. She’s still wearing dresses in this one, talking in front of such symbolic backdrops as a Heritage Foundation stage, with her accomplishments being ticked off—all of them sounding very grand but a little beyond the reach of a senator. The last one, for instance: “Quadrupled Agents on the Border.” It’s true that Hutchison voted to boost the number of Border Patrol agents significantly, as have almost all of her colleagues. But to say that she did it, that Hutchison herself did the quadrupling, is spectacularly misleading. As political lies go, it doesn’t rank as a big one. But it’s part of a pattern of Hutchison’s tendency to overstate her importance in Washington and exaggerate her accomplishments for Texas. It’s true that senators don’t have the lists of itemized accomplishments that governors can boast, simply by virtue of how their jobs work. But taking credit where you’re due very little is not the way to make yourself sound like a go-getter. (For another example, check out this fact-check of a Hutchison campaign claim.) More than anything, Hutchison sounds in her second ad like a politician desperate to think of things to brag about. Hutchison also comes out looking like a politician desperate for conversative votes. The ad ends with an image of Hutchison speaking in front of an approving-looking Dick Cheney. Even in Texas, the wisdom of having Cheney be the face of your campaign, not a year after he left office with an approval rating nearly as bad as Osama’s, is questionable at the very least. But if there’s anything that Hutchison’s early mass-media efforts have told us, it’s that she aims to compete for consevative votes rather than relying too heavily on firing up moderates and hoping to lure some non-Republicans to the polls. Hutchison is going toe-to-toe with Perry. And these two commercials illustrate one of the main reasons why she’s falling short so far: She doesn’t know how. I’ll delve into Farouk Shami’s ads shortly.