RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — "Tell President Obama: Stop the spending," screams an ad running during the broadcast of NBC's "Today" show in central Virginia. At a break during ABC's "The View," Mitt Romney is praised in a different spot for his "strong leadership."
In Tampa, Fla., a commercial in the middle of "Dateline NBC" shows a woman fretting about the national debt under President Barack Obama and saying: "He spent like our country's credit card had no limit." In an ad seen during evening newscasts, the Obama campaign trashes Romney for "the worst economic record in the country" when he was governor of Massachusetts.
The political pitches are coming early and often in Virginia, Florida and other hotly contested states that are expected to determine the outcome of the White House contest. So far they're mostly jammed around local newscasts and current affairs shows along with an occasional appearance on shows like "The Price is Right" on CBS and ABC's "General Hospital."
At this stage in the campaign, both Republicans and Democrats are focusing the bulk of their advertising on selling their campaign message to a select group of people — those who pay close attention to the news, seek to stay informed and influence those around them.
"They are trying to get opinion leaders, early donors and the press to focus on certain issues or events," says Joe Mercurio, a New York-based political media buyer.
This was the finding when an Associated Press reporter recently spent several hours watching television in Richmond and Tampa, two population hubs in states that have emerged as pivotal to the election prospects for Obama and Romney. Obama carried Virginia and Florida over Republican John McCain in 2008 but is fighting for a repeat this time.
Both states and both media markets are awash in TV ads in a crush noteworthy for its negativity, early start and involvement of outside groups that are likely to spend more on commercials than both the Obama and Romney campaigns.
To be sure, both sides dramatically will expand their advertising in the coming months. They'll try to target their messages to older people by running TV ads during daytime programming, and to young voters by focusing on late-night shows.
But for now, their target is those who tend to set the agenda in communities, as well as the most prized voters.
As Elizabeth Wilner, vice president of Kantar Media-Campaign Media Analysis Group, put it: "News programming is still a reliable place to find undecideds."
The Richmond-Petersburg media market is one of three in Virginia that consistently rank among the top 10 in the country for ad spending by both the campaigns and independent groups. The others are Norfolk/Newport News on the state's eastern edge and Lynchburg/Roanoke in south-central Virginia.
The Obama campaign spent $721,000 to advertise in Virginia during this recent week compared with $384,000 for the Romney campaign. But Crossroads GPS, a conservative-leaning independent group spent about $437,000 on ads attacking Obama in Virginia, putting the pro-Romney efforts on par with the president's team.
Obama also got an assist from Priorities USA Action, a group formed by two of his former aides. It spent about $90,000 on ads in Virginia that week.
In Richmond, campaign ads were tucked between commercials for Verizon and Dove soap, as well as spots for local restaurants and businesses like carpet cleaners.
Romney's campaign had the largest ad presence, with media trackers estimating that an average television viewer would have seen a Romney ad 10 times over the course of the week, an Obama ad eight times, a Crossroads ad four times and a Priorities USA ad three times.
Romney's ad, "Strong Leadership," popped up during morning shows and around evening newscasts. It featured upbeat music and imagines of Romney and his wife Ann on the campaign trail and a narrator promising unity and results if Romney defeats Obama in November.
From day one, Mitt Romney's strong leadership will make all the difference on jobs," the ad says.
Crossroads ran ads attacking Obama. "Stopwatch" warned of the growth in federal debt since Obama took office, asserting: "He's adding $4 billion in debt every day."
The Obama campaign responded in kind with a spot that criticized Romney's one-year term as Massachusetts governor, showing a clip of Romney from 2002 saying: "I speak the language of business. ... I know how jobs are created." The ad then ticked through economic statistics and said: "Romney economics: It didn't work then, and it won't work now."
Priorities USA Action focused on Romney's years at the private equity firm Bain Capital. The group's ad, "Loris," featured a woman describing her experience being laid off by the Ampad company in Indiana. "When Mitt Romney did that, he made me sick," she said.
Tampa is the second largest metropolitan region in Florida and anchors the western end of the I-4 corridor that bisects the central part of the state. The corridor is home to many swing voters and Tampa will host the Republican National Convention in late August.
In Florida during this recent week, the Obama campaign spent just under $1 million to run ads compared with $638,000 for Crossroads GPS. That gave the Romney campaign the luxury of staying off the air and saving money.
Indeed, a day of television viewing in Tampa found a nearly constant stream of negative ads volleyed between the Obama campaign and Crossroads. As in Virginia, both sides focused on running ads around morning and evening newscasts in Tampa.
The Obama campaign has run several commercials in Florida including ads showcasing his support for Medicare and federal assistance for veterans. But the anti-Romney ad "Heard it All Before," which Obama also was running in Virginia, held sway in Tampa that week.
Priorities USA Action was up with its "Loris" ad but the spot ran less frequently than the Obama campaign's own ads.
Crossroads dug in with two ads, including one targeting women who may have voted for Obama in 2008 but are looking elsewhere this time. The ad depicts a mother of two adult children who still live with her because they can't find work.
"I supported President Obama's agenda. But he spent like our country's credit card had no limit. How will my kids pay that off when they can't get jobs?" the woman says.
Follow Beth Fouhy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bfouhy