WASHINGTON -- A full 16 months before Election Day 1996, President Clinton is going on the air in states key to his re-election chances with three hard-hitting television ads focusing on crime.
The targets of the ads, which begin running today, are clear: the National Rifle Association and the Republican presidential contenders -- notably Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas -- who are attempting to undo the assault weapons ban pushed through Congress last year by the president.
Mr. Dole "pledged in March to the NRA that by the end of the summer he would have on the president's desk a bill that would repeal what he called the 'ill-conceived' ban on assault weapons," White House press secretary Mike McCurry said.
In the wake of the April 19 Oklahoma City bombing, Mr. Dole has slowed his drive to repeal the assault weapons ban, but the president is keeping the spotlight on the issue, which his advisers say is a winning one for him.
Mr. McCurry showed the ads to reporters in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.
Typically, such screenings are held in a candidate's headquarters by an official of the campaign, not the government.
All three ads mentioned police officers or ordinary citizens gunned down with semiautomatic, military-style assault weapons. In the first, Mr. Clinton appears on camera saying, "Deadly assault weapons off our streets. One hundred thousand more police on the streets. Expand the death penalty. That's how we'll protect America."
The other two ads feature police officers describing how they or their partners were shot with semiautomatics. "I had never heard a weapon that loud," said Dayton, Ohio, Patrolman Randy Beane. "President Clinton is right," the officer added. "It's not about politics. It's about a ban on deadly assault weapons."
Produced by a team led by veteran Democratic adman Robert D. Squier, the commercials are set to run in 20 carefully selected markets in 11 battleground states: Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Mr. McCurry said the ads are not running in states where it is perceived they'll do no good, such as Texas, which recently legalized concealed weapons, or in places like New York City and San Francisco, where a strong sentiment against assault weapons already exists.
The estimated $2.4 million cost of airing the ads comes out of the Clinton-Gore '96 campaign fund, which already has raised $8 million.
Political pros were divided on the wisdom of this strategy.
Clinton advisers say an aggressive, early effort may scare off potential Democratic challengers. It also helps associate Mr. Clinton with an issue, diverting attention from a personality even he concedes tends to polarize voters. Finally, by stressing gun control and capital punishment, these ads help Mr. Clinton frame the issue in a manner that stands to appeal to both liberals and conservatives.
"We think people will pick up on that," said one presidential aide. "We're also not going to wait, like George Bush did, and let other people define him."
Nelson Warfield, a spokesman for Mr. Dole's presidential campaign, said the ads are "clearly designed to try to scare people. But what it really demonstrates is how scared candidate Clinton is of Bob Dole."