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As election nears, a flood of nastiness

Harsh attack ads flourish in tight races as control of Congress hangs in the balance.

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Arcuri's Republican opponent, state Sen. Ray Meier, also denounced the ad and called on the NRCC to pull it, but by law, political campaigns are barred from conferring with groups that make independent expenditures on candidates' behalf. Ultimately, the ad did not air on most stations in that part of New York, according to the local press.

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Democrats are also producing their share of negative ads deemed unfair by watchdog groups. Mr. Jackson's group, which posts its findings at www.factcheck.org, found 11 ads by Democrats that accused Republican incumbents of voting against a $1,500 bonus for US troops.

One such ad, produced by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and aired in New Mexico to support House challenger Patricia Madrid, accused her opponent of voting against the bonus (and for a congressional pay raise) – but failed to note that the bonus would have come at the expense of reconstruction funds for Iraq. Rep. Heather Wilson (R), the incumbent, is locked in a tight race with Ms. Madrid, state attorney general.

Negative-ad advantage: Republicans

Between the two House campaign committees, the Republicans are beating the Democrats in the race to the bottom. According to a report released last week on Factcheck.org, the NRCC so far this cycle has spent $41.9 million attacking Democrats and $5 million supporting Republicans – about 8 to 1 negative versus positive advertising. The DCCC has spent $18 million on attacks and $3.1 million on positive ads – a 5 to 1 ratio.

Looking at all campaign spending for all races – projected to come in at $2.6 billion, a record for a midterm election – ad-watchers cannot say for certain which party is more guilty of attacks. "I would guarantee you it's equal opportunity," says Mr. Tracey. "The Republican Party is not Darth Vader and the Democrats are not Luke Skywalker. It's basically, once one goes negative, everybody goes negative."

Whether negative ads drive down turnout is open to debate. But if it does, says Tracey, that's not the ads' fault. "This is America, where you've got this great right people die and bleed for. If you're going to let a bunch of silly commercials stop you from voting, it's your fault."

Still, any political candidate knows that blaming voters for their decisions – including whether or not to vote – is a losing proposition. And so, aware of the public's distaste for negativity, many see the good-cop bad-cop routine at work in Missouri. There, Senate candidate Claire McCaskill (D), locked in a close race to unseat Sen. James Talent (R), says she will not air negative ads, knowing well that the party and surrogates will do the dirty work.

But Ms. McCaskill has herself attacked Senator Talent's positions, his loyalty to President Bush, and his campaign donations, notes David Robertson, a political scientist at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. She also approved ads featuring actor Michael J. Fox, who is diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and who favors embryonic stem-cell research, in which Mr. Fox asserts that Talent wants to "criminalize the science that gives us a chance for hope."

But, Mr. Robertson adds, Talent's ads have been perceived to be more personal and mean-spirited than McCaskill's. "These ads have hurt his image as a nice-guy, conservative, policy wonk," he says.

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