Gloves come off early this election year

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The presidential campaign last week went from slinging mud to wallowing in it-a strategy fraught with peril, according to political pros.

Normally, character attacks come during a campaign's closing weeks and the voting is over before it can backfire. But in this election it's being used very early, and the question is whether that will work for or against the candidate.

It's "an absolute sewer of a debate," said Bob Dilenscheider, founder of PR agency Dilenschneider Group. "We are in the last six weeks and it's going to get really messy, despicable. It not what you take your kids to civics classes for."

fast and furious

The finger-pointing came fast and furious last week. Vice President Dick Cheney suggested Sen. John Kerry's election would lead to more terrorist attacks on America. Kerry running mate Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., blasted Mr. Cheney's remarks as "un-American." Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe accused President Bush of lying about his Vietnam-era service or having memory problems. A Democratic group ran an ad indicating Mr. Bush had been AWOL during the Vietnam War. Former Vice President Al Gore denounced the Cheney comment as "a sleazy and despicable effort to blackmail voters with fear."

Dick Bennett, president of American Research Group, a Manchester, N.H., polling firm, remembers political assaults on Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., backfiring four years ago in the Republican primary in New Hampshire by helping push McCain supporters to the polls. Yet he doesn't think that is likely to happen this time because the Bush campaign has been smart in how it sullies rivals.

backfire potential

"Everything they do indicates they are masters of using this stuff. They find a weakness and hammer away," he said, adding the Bush campaign can benefit two ways: The attacks could directly hurt Mr. Kerry or prompt some independents not to vote.

"Already 85% of Republicans are with Bush and 85% of Democrats with Kerry. It's a question of the people in the middle. You can make them mad enough they want to punish you or make them so mad they don't want to vote. It's a fine line.

"Right now Bush has Kerry down [in polls] and they are trying to jump all over him to keep him down. If it doesn't work, the next best thing for Bush is that people will walk away from it and keep away the people who don't normally vote."

Ben Goddard, a long time GOP political consultant who is president of Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy, said the Democrats are on the offensive with character because of the success of the Republicans at the Republican National Convention. "Democrats are going to try to stop their erosion by raising questions about Bush's character," he said of last week's focus on Mr. Bush's Vietnam-era National Guard service.

Democrats, he added, realize "the one thing Bush has going for him is people perceive he is likeable and a strong leader. ... They need to poke some holes in it and undermine those values."

Mr. Dilenschneider said candidates are using a classic PR tactic. "People don't like negative things, so sometimes the way to do it is say, `I'm not going to dignify the debate about the war record,' which raises the question that there is a debate about the war record." It is still unclear how much the attacks will influence voters. "It's going to get a lot messier before it gets a lot better."

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