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CNHI News Service

June 4, 2012

When party affiliation could be a liability, campaign ads focus on the personal

Sen. Jon Tester's massive right hand is capable of a vise-grip handshake. In old photographs, however, the Montana wheat-and-barley farmer often has his left hand in the pocket of his barn jacket. Or down by the leg of his jeans.

The three middle fingers on that hand are gone, lost to the blades of a meat grinder when he was 9 years old. The 55-year-old Democrat still uses that hand when fixing the combine at his ranch, flipping through a family album or picking up a burger. The hand does each of those tasks, conspicuously, in his reelection ads.

He says he made no conscious decision to let his injured hand be seen."The psychology of it all, I don't know. Maybe I'm more comfortable now in this position," Tester said last month in his Senate office.

Last fall, the committee that organizes on behalf of Republican Senate candidates created an attack ad featuring a photo of Tester greeting President Barack Obama. The picture showed the senator with his left hand reaching toward the president, and that hand suddenly had all its fingers.

Tester's campaign spokesman decried "the made-up photo" at the time. But that odd distortion by his opponents might have inadvertently served the senator well. The digital trickery brought more focus to the senator's childhood accident than the senator might have on his own. The actual hand evokes something indelible about Tester's life story, about dangerous farm chores, about overcoming adversity.

Candidates use every possible medium and every possible milestone in their lives to boost their prospects when party affiliation isn't enough — or is potentially lethal. And often their most powerful asset is the most personal anecdote. There are perhaps no better trust-building vehicles than biographical spots. Such ads unspool in heavy rotation during the first half of the election year and prep the electorate for message and attack ads later on. These early commercials use their precious seconds to reinforce a connection to the home state, not the Hill.

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