Third Parties Sling Mud and Money in Tight Elections

Name calling, credibility bashing, scandalizing the opponent’s values and poking holes in the enemy’s political record are all run-of-the-mill ploys used by wannabe governors, congressional and state lawmakers and even local officials.

But when the entire balance of Congress, particularly in the Senate with its one-seat margin, is at stake like it is this year, voters may see some different tactics used, ones that are dirtier and more expensive than in campaigns past.

"Bad year for the stock market, great year for the TV stations," said Erik Potholm, partner with Stevens Reed Curcio, a Republican media firm, who referred to the amount of money thrown into advertising this year.

"Because the balance of power is up in the air, you’re seeing more money coming in from the national parties and outside third party groups trying to influence groups for the House and Senate," he said. "Third party groups are nastier than ever before."

Voters have already seen the multiple wounds from political backstabbing this year.

Among the more notable infractions was the hullabaloo in Iowa when the campaign of Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin provided a digital recorder to a former Harkin aide to take to a strategy session of his opponent, Republican Rep. Greg Ganske. The campaign then leaked a copy of the recording to an Iowa reporter.

In New York, Republican Rep. Felix Grucci’s allegations in a radio ad that his Democratic opponent Timothy Bishop was lax about pursuing rape allegations as a college provost landed him in court. Southampton College is seeking $6 million in damages and received a court injunction to halt the Grucci ad from running.

In South Dakota, supporters of Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson want Republican Rep. John Thune to stop running ads that include pictures of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and suggest that Johnson is less patriotic than Thune.

Sometimes, the nastiness is so below the belt, it is disavowed by the candidate it is trying to help.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican running for re-election, tried to trademark his name earlier this year to prevent it from being used by third party groups viciously attacking then-Democratic hopeful Janet Reno. The group, Americans for Jeb Bush, sent out letters and articles questioning former Attorney General Reno’s sex life, and holding her responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Most candidates are willing to go quite far to get elected," said Democratic political strategist Tom King.

King and Potholm agree that not just dirty tricks, but unusual behavior, has marked the campaign trail this year.

In California, Massachusetts and Florida, for instance, candidates got their potshots in on likely candidates while they were still running in primaries.

Some analysts suggest that California Gov. Gray Davis is having an easier go of his re-election because he helped contribute to the loss by former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan in the primary against more conservative businessman Bill Simon. It was thought by many that Riordan would be a tougher opponent than Simon during the general election. Davis spent millions on campaign ads during the Republican primary attacking Riordan's record.

Of course, no tight race is complete without the negative campaign ads, though third party groups rather than the candidates themselves are contributing more to the negativity, say experts.

"I think political party ads are the big offenders, they’re the ones that are going too far," said Ron Faucheux, editor-in-chief of Campaigns & Elections magazine.

A classic nasty ad is being aired by the Montana Democratic Party and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee against Republican state Sen. Mike Taylor.

The ad shows a 1980 "Beauty Corner" broadcast ridiculing Taylor's business practices at the Michael Taylor Institute of Hair Design, which he ran from 1978 to 1998.

An announcer says the U.S. Education Department "uncovered Taylor's hair care scam for abusing the student loan program and diverting money to himself," as video of a leisure-suit-clad Taylor giving a man a facial splashes across the screen. The clincher is the disco music playing in the background.

Taylor dropped out of the Senate race Thursday, blaming the negative ads for depicting him as homosexual.

There’s also always the technology-age version of ways to confuse voters -- buying up an opponent's possible Web addresses and using them to present negative information about the candidate.

"The political marketplace is getting wise to a lot of that," Faucheux said. "Voters are becoming wise to the fact that some of these off-name sites are, in effect, attack sites and that sort of thing."

Voters are also wise to the mudslinging and quality of each candidate, experts say.

"Never underestimate the intelligence of the voter but never overestimate how much they pay attention to this stuff," King said.