On the stump, he's not exactly Bambi's little friend Thumper, who follows a parent's advice: "If you can't say something nice ... don't say nothing at all."
Still, presidential hopeful John Edwards did have the best campaign line leading up to the Iowa caucuses: "If you are looking for a candidate who is best at sniping at his fellow Democrats, I am not your man."
Perhaps Mr. Edwards's late surge in the polls was simply because of his commitment to refraining from negative ads about his opponents or verbally elbowing them in debates. Many voters see leadership in keeping the high tone in a campaign, especially after months of intra-party potshots and pea-shooting. By running a straightforward campaign, Edwards realized that voters must get over what he called "an enormous barrier of cynicism" about campaigns and elections.
A fine line exists between fairly pointing out one's differences with an opponent's policies and attacking them or implying a lack of integrity.
Too many campaign ads feature out-of-context quotes, unflattering photos, or doomsday-like voiceover and music. Voters know when an ad has destructive power or when it lacks respect, and candidates should, too.
Howard Dean gets the award for running the first negative ads of the primary season, although he generally didn't attack by name. By last week, his commercials in Iowa criticized several candidates openly, helping generate even more negative ads. "He started this," said Rep. Richard Gephardt "and we're going to answer."
Unfortunately, campaign consultants keep pointing out that negative ads do soften support for an opponent, at least in the short term. They might also help mobilize the attacker's own political supporters.
Many experts often blame low voter turnout on negative advertising. Candidates or news media can help voters avoid such cynicism by providing specific information on issues.
If Edwards's antipugilist approach proves effective, perhaps it will set a model for the rest of the primaries, and the general election, too.