Five weeks before the Iowa caucuses, the gloves are coming off in the 2008 presidential race.
In the top tier, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are attacking each other on their experience levels and healthcare plans. John Edwards, a close second in Iowa polls behind the top two, is pounding hard on Senator Clinton's foreign-policy record and years as a Washington insider.
At the top of the Republican pack, Mitt Romney and Rudolph Giuliani are going after each other on immigration, taxes, crime, and values. Fred Thompson is going after Mike Huckabee on immigration and taxes. John McCain is claiming he's more electable than both Mr. Romney and Mr. Giuliani.
And the candidates are naming names. Gone are the genteel references to "my opponent."
What's surprising is not that the rising intensity is happening – all campaigns tend to be about what candidates believe is positive about them and negative about the other guy (or gal). It's that, for the most part, the debates are over substance, not below-the-belt attacks.
"The level of it isn't different from the past; if anything, it's highly civilized and substantive," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. "This is engagement on issues, these are things that matter."
What's new in this presidential cycle is the timing – and the interjection of the holidays into the final stretch of pre-Iowa and New Hampshire campaigning. The first nominating contest, Iowa, will take place earlier in January than ever – Jan. 3, 16 days earlier than the 2004 caucuses. The New Hampshire primary is just five days later.
The challenge for candidates will be how to campaign during and around the holidays – and how to keep stressing their contrasts with opponents – without irritating voters.
Del Ali, an independent pollster based in Maryland, also sees the calendar – and candidates' private polling data – as driving the change in tone in the campaign. "We're inside of 40 days before the first contest," he says. "Now is when people start focusing."
Candidates who are struggling to catch fire have to make their move now, before it's too late. "In the case of [Bill] Richardson and Thompson, it's do or die," Mr. Ali adds. "Though if you want to be vice president, you've got to be careful."
For both Mr. Richardson, the Democratic governor of New Mexico, and Mr. Thompson, a Republican former senator from Tennessee, the possibility of being selected as a running mate may in fact be a consideration.
When Governor Richardson leapt to Senator Clinton's defense in a recent Democratic debate, the whispers that he was currying favor with a potential nominee were hard to miss.
Still, Richardson is also showing signs that he's willing to make a mild dig at Clinton's high negatives. In a recent fundraising letter, Richardson warned against nominating a candidate whom the "Republicans can successfully poison for a majority of voters." He added: "It is possible to elect the most qualified candidate, not just the one who is the most well-known or well-funded."
Former Senator Edwards has taken a sharper-edged approach to campaigning than he did four years ago, when he ran for president and wound up on the Democratic ticket as John Kerry's running mate. But he sees no problem with being aggressive about drawing contrasts on issues. In fact, he sees value in it.
"Having been through a general election, I mean, if anybody including Senator Clinton, thinks this is mudslinging – this is milquetoast compared to what we're going to see next fall," Edwards said recently on CBS's "Face the Nation." "We need to have a candidate who's actually ready for that battle."
Indeed, candidates in both parties are predicting that the general election will get as nasty as the last one, and that the relatively civilized tone of the primaries bespeaks a desire not to damage the eventual nominees – while both sides quietly gather ammunition for the general.
Meanwhile, the back-and-forth between the top tier candidates is enough to fill up an inbox overnight, as they charge and countercharge each other over their records. Romney raised the decibel level this week with charges that Giuliani is "very much like Hillary Clinton."
"He's pro-choice like Hillary Clinton. He's pro-gay civil union like Hillary Clinton. He's pro-sanctuary cities like she is…." Romney said in a Fox News Radio interview.
Giuliani has been pounding Romney over his appointment of a judge in Massachusetts who ordered the release of a convicted killer from prison, who is now charged with another killing. Romney has called for the judge's resignation.
On the Democratic side, the top rivals have been duking it out over healthcare. Obama's plan does not include a mandate that all people buy insurance, while Clinton's does. On the experience question, Obama got big news coverage when he questioned how Clinton's years as first lady would qualify her to be president. "My understanding was that she wasn't treasury secretary in the Clinton administration," Obama said.
Political analysts see Obama coming out ahead in such an exchange, as it punctures Clinton's attempts to portray herself as the inevitable nominee.
"It may make Obama seem a little less like a saint, but as doubts begin to creep up about Hillary .... it could hurt her," says Curtis Gans, director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University.