Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren — amid growing unrest from party activists and leaders — is facing pressure to make a major shift in her television advertising with a new series of commercials that seek to soften her image, while focusing more directly on her GOP rival, Senator Scott Brown.
According to top Democratic leaders in Massachusetts, Warren campaign advisers are considering a new strategy that will be aimed at toning down what those leaders call the preachy tone that has dominated her ads until now. Instead, some of the spots would rely more on the voices of voters from all walks of life describing what Warren’s supporters say is the warm personality of a popular university professor. They would also zero in on Brown, acknowledging that while he is a likable public figure, he is not the moderate Republican that he makes himself out to be.
Television ads are considered critical to wooing independent voters in one of the most hotly contested Senate races nationwide.
The Warren campaign said Tuesday that no decisions have been made, but advisers conceded they have been feeling pressure regarding the thrust of the media strategy in these final weeks. Warren’s team — including media consultant and former Clinton aide Mandy Grunwald and top adviser Doug Rubin — has been huddled in meetings considering options.
In the past few days, a film crew has been spotted following Warren at public events in Worcester and Barre, and capturing her chatting with voters in Lowell.
The pressure on Warren to shift her media strategy comes as Democrats, including some in Washington, have become worried that her commercials give off an unappealing image. Several of the spots that ran through the summer featured Warren speaking directly to the camera, projecting what they termed a know-it-all and even off-putting likeness.
With her animated speaking style and tendency to gesticulate, Warren at times comes across as a “scolding advocate,” they said, while Brown’s own ads have helped him polish his image as a likable, Massachusetts-rooted political figure.
A half-dozen Democrats asked about the ads insisted that Warren, while an exciting and eminently likable candidate, must change her media strategy if she is to beat Brown. Each declined to be quoted on the record because of the political sensitivity of the issue.
The problem came into sharp focus at last week’s Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C., when Warren and her advisers were criticized by local and national Democrats. The criticisms seemed to resonate. As she headed out of the convention hall for her trip home, she signaled to one fellow Democrat: “Message received.’’
Observers, too, say the current ads do not seem to be working.
“Her ads are stilted,’’ said Jeffrey M. Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University. “She is sitting stationary, not a lot going on besides her talking into the camera. It seems like a self-inflicted wound. It mystifies me why they haven’t changed their strategy. They need to shake up the race.”
Some Democrats said Warren should take a page from President Obama’s convention playbook — allow her supporters to speak on her behalf.
Warren advisers, while acknowledging the concerns and pressure, insist the discussions surrounding the ad shift are part of a long-planned strategy for the final two-month push to the Nov. 6 election. They reject much of the criticism of the summer media blitz, pointing to recent polls that show Warren close or tied with Brown, a popular incumbent who has also flooded the airwaves over the last few months.
“This election is not about 30-second TV ads or sound bites,’’ said Rubin. “We have a lot more to do, but we are still in a good position.’’
Still, the consensus is that Brown has won the TV ad war to date. His feel-good spots, often shot with familiar Massachusetts scenes, show him driving his pick-up truck, rubbing shoulders with firemen, and receiving strong words of support from a Massachusetts Medal of Honor winner.
Dan Payne, a longtime state Democratic media consultant, called Brown’s ads “organic’’ to Massachusetts, while Warren’s, he said, do not seem to connect with the local scene.
“Brown looks and acts like a Massachusetts political figure,’’ Payne says. “He is engaged with people and their problems. Her commercials could be for any Democratic candidate for Senate anywhere in America. They feel like cookie-cutter. There is no feeling in those ads that she is even in Massachusetts.’’
Last week, former governor Michael S. Dukakis reflected the discontent among Warren supporters when he addressed a group of Bay State activists and delegates at the convention. “Yeah, I know Elizabeth’s media hasn’t been as good as it should be, and she knows that, and I think you’re going to see some significant changes,’’ Dukakis said.
Dukakis, who declined to comment further this week, fired his own campaign media consultant in the middle of a heated gubernatorial race in 1982, and hired Payne instead as he looked to reshape his image from a wonky public persona. The result: a series of ads that humanized Dukakis, including one where he returned to the Greek community where his father grew up in Lowell.
Frank Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.