WASHINGTON – While politicians decry negative advertising and personal attacks, the bottom line is that such tactics often work.
People may not quite recall the specific controversy, but negative campaigning can still raise a question mark in voters' minds about a candidate and prove hard to overcome.
Attack campaigns, such as those by outside groups in the current presidential campaign, "are bad for the system," President Bush said on Monday, including a television commercial questioning rival John Kerry's (search) military service in Vietnam. No matter that Kerry and his supporters have claimed the group behind the ad, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (search), is linked to the Bush campaign — a connection the president's team denies.
The allegations that Kerry lied about his Vietnam war service — claims made in a book by one of the group's leaders and in interviews as well as in ads — have dominated the presidential race for more than a week.
"Politicians don't want to be seen as responsible for negative ads, but they do believe they produce desirable results," said David Rohde, professor of political science at Michigan State University at Lansing. "But it's one thing to be harsh and truthful, another thing to be harsh and untruthful."
The Kerry campaign has sought to turn the debate into a discussion of Bush campaign tactics, recalling allegations against Sen. John McCain (search) — a popular figure among independents — in South Carolina in 2000.
At that time, a group of veterans who had endorsed Bush accused the Arizona Republican of abandoning veterans and POWs as a congressman, after being imprisoned himself in Vietnam. McCain called the charge "beyond the pale" but lost the GOP presidential contest.
Democrats also cite the bitter 2002 Senate race in Georgia, in which Republicans questioned the war-on-terror patriotism of Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, who lost both legs and an arm in the Vietnam War. Cleland lost the race for re-election.
During his 1988 presidential campaign, the president's father, George H. W. Bush, tried to distance himself from a conservative group's racially tinged ad about Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who raped a woman while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison. The ad accused Michael Dukakis, the Democratic presidential nominee, of being soft on crime.
The current president and his aides have asserted that he, too, has been the victim of negative campaigning, including ads by Democratic groups financed by billionaire George Soros.
Asked about the anti-Kerry Vietnam ad, Bush told reporters at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, that he supports stopping "all of them. That means that ad and every other ad" by independent groups.
The only way to fend off a negative attack is to present overwhelming evidence to contradict it, and even then "the big lie is sometimes hard to catch up with," said Lanny Davis, an adviser to Kerry who was special counsel to former President Clinton.
"You can't do it with rhetoric, you can't do it by name calling. You can't do it by getting personal. You have to simply dig deeper than the other guy, come up with undisputed facts and get those facts out in every possible medium," Davis said.
Some political advisers have suggested the Massachusetts senator waited too long to respond forcefully. If nothing else, the issue has thrown Kerry offstride during a between-conventions period when he had hoped to focus on the economy and other issues.
Polls suggest that the Democrat's support has been slipping.
A CBS poll said independent voters were split on whether the allegations were believable, and noted a shift in veterans toward Bush.
A survey by the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Public Policy Center said more than half of those surveyed had seen or knew about the ad, even though it ran only in a few markets.
The accusations made by Kerry's detractors pose a dilemma for both Bush and Kerry, although a larger one for Kerry, said the center's director, Kathleen Hall Jamieson.
"Bush's dilemma is that he doesn't want to alienate the people who feel that way about Kerry. Kerry's problem is that his vulnerability was never the medals, it was the war protests after he came back," said Jamieson.
And while Kerry needs to court veterans, "he can't afford to alienate the people who admire him for those protests," she said.