An election so nasty, so soon

It's a scrappy battle, but public is engaged.

Neither Sandy Hunt nor Kathy Griffin likes nasty political ads. Indeed, both are already "horrified" by the hostile tone of this year's presidential campaign.

But no matter how unpleasant it gets, both small-business executives plan to vote Nov. 2. The threat of terrorism and troubled state of the economy have made politics central to them as never before.

But there's also another dynamic at play - the polarizing nature of the Bush presidency. Ms. Hunt is determined to vote for George Bush because she doesn't like the feeling that people have a "vendetta" against him. Ms. Griffin is just as adamant about supporting John Kerry because "Bush is a runaway train ... and I feel very strongly about stopping him."

Their comments reflect a truism about campaign 2004: Even though the election has turned nasty earlier than any in modern history, experts predict voters will remain engaged in the political process - and probably go to the polls in large numbers.

While negative campaigns often dampen voter turnout, analysts believe the election this time around is different. Voters, already, are unusually engaged.

"The stakes are high and the country is incredibly polarized," says Darrell West, a political scientist at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "People don't like the negativity and by November they're going to hate both candidates, but they're still going to vote."

Indeed, pollster John Zogby puts it, it's an "armageddon campaign," because each side claims the election of the other would mean "the end of the world."

At least since World War II, the incumbent at this stage of an election campaign is usually sitting in the White House Rose Garden above the political fray. He doesn't step out and lower himself to politics until at least the summer, allowing him to maintain the aura of wisdom, power, and dignity that comes with the Oval Office.

And his challenger usually isn't chosen until much later in the spring. Then he takes a little time off to recover from the primaries and restock his war chest. The combined dynamic gives country a rest from politics.

No rest this year

But these are clearly not usual times. With the Democrats' front-loaded primary schedule, John Kerry is already the presumed nominee. And with polls showing him either even or just ahead of President Bush, the Republican stepped out of the garden last week and stunned pundits by going directly on the attack, accusing his Democratic rival of being weak on national security and threatening to raise taxes.

And Kerry, determined not to be defined by his Republican rival as he steps in earnest onto the national stage, struck back just as forcefully, accusing the President of misleading the country with negative ads "once again."

Earlier in the week, he was also caught on a microphone calling the Republican attack squads as the most "crooked" and "lying" ever.

Will some tune out?

"If this keeps up from now until November, there's the potential for the public to be pretty turned off by this and decide 'I don't want either of these guys,' and stay home," says Candace Nelson, director of the Campaign Management Institute in Washington. "But the election is a long way away, so it may just go over people's heads."

Many political junkies have already have had enough and are ready for a break.

They're hoping both candidates decide to turn down the rhetoric at least until the cherry blossoms are done flowering in Washington.

"Kerry and Bush are turning out to be the relatives that won't leave, no matter how many hints you drop," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia.

Mudslinging not new

And while he, too, can't remember a campaign that launched as early with as much venom, he does note that there have been plenty of others that eventually turned even more malicious, particularly in the 19th century, when newspapers were little more than partisan mouthpieces. In the mid 20th century, President Truman likened his opponent to Hitler as the fascists' tool. But that wasn't until late October.

"Campaigns have certainly been as negative, but this one could be negativefor longer than it ever has been before," says Professor Sabato.

All of the hostility could end up damaging the body politic as a whole, he worries, leaving the country even more polarized than it is now and Congress even less able to find a center of compromise from which to govern.

But political analysts point out that negative ads also can serve a civic function - education - because they provide information, even if it is spun to portray an opponent negatively. They also serve to keep each party's base energized.

'Red meat' for the base

That's key this year, because there are so few undecided votes. Usually at this time, about 20 percent of voters haven't made up their minds. But in Mr. Zogby's national polls, that's down about 5 to 7 percent, so reinforcing the base is critical.

"The negativity is not so much as in other years to persuade undecided, it's to throw red meat to your supporters," says Zogby. "So John Kerry doesn't apologize [for his 'lying and crooked' remark] - he doesn't have to, because his supporters hate George Bush."

And the President can come out of the Rose Garden and attack Kerry by name, because his supporters are just as passionately opposed to Kerry.

Politics no tea party

"This isn't a Sunday afternoon tea party. This is the rough, cutting edge of our democracy," Zogby says. "And it's never going to be friendly or pleasant. That's just not the way politics is."

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