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Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008 | Mayoral candidate Steve Francis revved up the first bit of buzz in this year’s young mayoral race Tuesday by announcing an unprecedented purchase of television airtime.

At a time in the campaign when most candidates are still traditionally knocking on doors and walking precincts, the independently wealthy businessman said he would go on air daily beginning Wednesday and stay there until June 3. The campaign said the first two weeks would cost $200,000, and with 15 weeks to go it appeared on pace to easily spend more than $1 million on television airtime alone.

Television advertising notoriously gets little bang for the buck locally because it reaches so many non-voters, including those who live outside city boundaries. But, with deep pockets and plenty of ground to cover to catch fellow Republican and incumbent Mayor Jerry Sanders, Francis appears ready to let his personal fortune be his running mate.

“It’s definitely unprecedented in San Diego for someone to go on television for three and a half months,” said political consultant Larry Remer, who isn’t involved in the race.

In 2005, Francis spent more than $2 million of his own money in an eight-week special primary election following Mayor Dick Murphy’s resignation. In that time, he went from virtual no-name to finish third, with the considerable help of television ads.

Francis’ consultants on the media buy have experience in aiding a wealthy man become mayor of a big city. The firm, Squier Knapp Dunn Communications, helped elect New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who spent more than $70 million of his own money on each of his two mayoral races.

The Francis ads are upbeat, introductory pieces that emphasize the success of AMN Healthcare, the temporary healthcare staffing company that Francis and his wife, Gayle Francis, founded. The only remark that could even be construed as a hit against Sanders is Francis’ statement that “We don’t need four more years of a caretaker.”

“Steve has a real rough, tough road to hoe,” said Scott Barnett, a former political consultant. “Politics 101 — you have to give people a reason to vote against an incumbent. He’s going to have to do a lot of selling of who he is. Then you’ll see the hits (against Sanders).”

Barnett ran one of the more prominent self-financed campaigns in recent San Diego politics, banker Peter Q. Davis’ second run in 2004. He estimated that Davis spent about $500,000 of an estimated $1.5 million on television. But he warned that the impact isn’t always great.

“Television is like cotton candy, it’s gratifying but it disappears very quickly,” Barnett said.

Francis said the truncated election campaign of 2005 left him with little opportunity to meet with leaders on the community level. Now, he said, he’s spending plenty of time knocking on doors and standing outside of grocery stores and shaking hands with voters. He said the television advertisements would be just one component of a campaign that would also use the traditional venues of radio and mail to reach voters.

John Kern, a political consultant who ran Dick Murphy’s 2000 and 2004 campaign, said this of Francis’ buy: “I go back 37 years and it’s unprecedented in those 37 years.”

But he wondered if it was a show of strength or a show of weakness in the campaign — and whether there was an appetite for a change.

“Is the general public in the market for a mayor candidate right now? My gut feeling is no, they’re not,” Kern said.

The general consensus in the political circles and early polling is that the incumbent Sanders remains relatively popular with voters. Although the city of San Diego remains barred from Wall Street more than two years since his election and many of his early reforms have been slow to take hold, he weathered his first political scandal over the Sunroad office tower in Kearny Mesa and won high marks for his performance during the Mount Soledad landslide and the October wildfires.

Still, Francis’ wallet will be an X-factor.

Self-financed candidates “tend not to win, but they don’t never win,” Remer said.

Francis declined to divulge how much he is prepared to spend, saying he would have to see first how much the Sanders campaign, the Republican Party and other related groups invest in the race.

Calls into the Sanders campaign weren’t returned as of press time.

Remer and Barnett said they were surprised that Sanders didn’t have more money on hand to take on Francis. By the end of 2007, Sanders had raised $342,926 and had $127,819 on hand.

Both men thought Sanders would need to raise more than $1 million by the time the June 3 primary rolls around.

Jennifer Tierney, another political consultant not affiliated with the race, said Sanders would be fine financially. “The money will be there when Jerry needs it. Between what he can raise and between the Republican Party and independent expenditures, I just don’t see Jerry having any issues with money,” she said, referring to the unlimited sums of money the party can put toward its favored candidate.

Tierney thought it was early to be putting money into television.

“It’s my experience that people aren’t clued in (yet),” she said. “In a local race, you don’t have the same things in play. In the presidential race, you’ve got all this media coverage that adds to your paid media. You don’t have that in a local race. He’s going to be running these TV spots in a big vacuum, and whether it pays off I have to wonder.”

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