NEW YORK — Brace yourselves for the attack ads.
Rick Perry's Social Security plan might cost Florida its entire public education and prison systems. Mitt Romney is the flip-flopper responsible for "Obamacare." Or so declare just two presidential campaign videos on the Web.
Going after the president and each other, Republican candidates have been test-driving themes and previewing attack lines online for months, foreshadowing the TV ad war that's all but certain to start soon in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early voting states.
With less than three months before voting begins in GOP nomination contests, the candidates' pitches and criticism will be streaming into voters' homes, either by the campaigns or outside groups working on their behalf.
For a change, TV ads from the candidates so far this year have been scarce.
Some contenders, such as Romney, are stockpiling cash for a long nomination battle and waiting for voters to start paying attention to the race in earnest. After all, TV ads are one of the most costly expenses of any campaign.
Most GOP candidates, like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, simply don't have the cash to wage an aggressive TV effort. Texas Rep. Ron Paul has done limited advertising in Iowa and New Hampshire, and has the money to go back on the air. Others, primarily Perry, could run TV ads sooner rather than later as they look to change the dynamics of the race.
"A smart ad campaign can absolutely put Perry back in the game," says Mark McKinnon, who was media strategist for Republican President George W. Bush's campaigns. "He is supposed to be the voice of the anti-Washington crowd, but the debates took him off track. Television can get him back on the rails."
The Texas governor's campaign, which is sitting on $15 million in cash, hints that TV ads are coming soon following state and national polls that show him badly trailing Romney after a series of weak debate performances.
Spokesman Mark Miner won't say exactly when Perry ads will begin. He will say, "Mitt Romney has more in common with President Obama than he does with Republican primary voters."
Perhaps previewing upcoming ads, the Perry campaign released a scathing Web video earlier this week comparing Romney's successful push for health care overhaul in Massachusetts to President Barack Obama's federal health care law, which conservatives deplore. With dramatic music playing in the background, the ad shows a news clip of Romney declaring "I like mandates" and features voice-overs from a news commentator saying "Romney has flip-flopped on so many issues."
Amid the fast-moving images, a message crawls across the screen: "Even the richest man can't buy back his past."
The Perry campaign also produced a hard-hitting Web video criticizing Obama. It pairs the president's voice with scenes of city graffiti and abandoned homes, then cuts to images of farms, and American flags waving in the breeze intercut with clips of Perry announcing his candidacy. "It's time to get America working again," he says, reinforcing his campaign's signature theme.
Romney's Web videos have focused mainly on criticizing Obama for his handling of the economy, using the slogan "Obama Isn't Working." Romney released one of those Thursday, assailing the president on international trade, coinciding with a speech Romney was delivering on trade.
But Romney has also gone after Perry.
In one video, directed at retiree-rich Florida, Romney highlights Perry's proposal to let the states take over Social Security.
"What could that look like?" the ad asks, suggesting the financial shortfall would be so great in Florida that the state might have to eliminate public education and its prison system to make up the difference.
Another Romney Web video attacks Perry for a Texas law allowing children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition to attend public universities. It features a clip of former Mexican President Vicente Fox thanking Perry for helping "Mexican migrants" attend college.
Businessman Herman Cain's campaign has produced a Web video promoting his "9-9-9" plan to overhaul the federal income tax system that has become the central message of his candidacy.
"Our tax code is the 21st century version of slavery," Cain says in the spot — a provocative statement from a black candidate.
While relatively few people see Web videos — Romney's most popular one had just 372,000 views on his YouTube channel, and most of the rest didn't break five figures — campaigns use the spots to attract press coverage, reinforce the candidate's narrative and drive negative messages about an opponent that might later appear on television.
Though voters today get their information from a wealth of sources, TV ads remain a powerful way for a campaign to take its message directly to viewers and bypass the media filter.
Still, only a few Republicans will have the resources to go on the air.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who advertised heavily in Iowa before winning the state's Republican test vote, doesn't have much cash and hasn't been on the air since the summer. Gingrich, the former House speaker, and Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, lack major funding, too. Cain, a business executive enjoying a recent surge in popularity among conservative voters, also has struggled with fundraising throughout the campaign.
Perry's campaign has raised $17 million since he joined the race last summer, all but guaranteeing he'll have the financial strength to compete with Romney on television. Romney has not yet released his most recent figures, but his campaign brought in $18 million through the end of June, far outpacing others in the field.
They'll both be helped by presidential super PACs that can raise unlimited donations to run ads supporting and opposing candidates. Both men are expected to raise and spend millions on television.
Bachmann and Paul also have the backing of super PACs, as does former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. His group might run the majority of pro-Huntsman ads since the campaign itself is all but broke.
Beth Fouhy can be reached on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bfouhy
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