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Going Negative

There is nothing new about underdog candidates "going negative" — it’s part of the playbook. However, Sen. John McCain has turned persistently nasty in his attacks against Sen. Barack Obama. The McCain campaign has tried to milk the Obama troop-snub story for all it’s worth, even after its claim that Obama decided not to visit wounded soldiers in Germany because reporters wouldn’t be allowed to accompany him was debunked — first by FactCheck.org, and today by the The Washington Post. This hasn’t stopped the McCain campaign. It released another statement from a retired sergeant yesterday afternoon criticizing Obama for backing out of the visit. This morning, it sent out a link to a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial that repeated the campaign’s charges.

As an editorial in today’s New York Times notes, all the negativity seems to result from McCain’s recent staff shakeup, which brought several veterans of past Bush campaigns — and protégés of Karl Rove — to prominent positions in the campaign.

On July 3, news reports said Senator John McCain, worried that he might lose the election before it truly started, opened his doors to disciples of Karl Rove from the 2004 campaign and the Bush White House. Less than a month later, the results are on full display. The candidate who started out talking about high-minded, civil debate has wholeheartedly adopted Mr. Rove’s low-minded and uncivil playbook…

Mr. McCain used to pride himself on being above this ugly brand of politics, which killed his own 2000 presidential bid. But he clearly tossed his inhibitions aside earlier this month when he put day-to-day management of his campaign in the hands of one acolyte of Mr. Rove and gave top positions to two others. The résumés of the new team’s members included stints in Mr. Bush’s White House and in his 2004 re-election campaign, one of the most negative and divisive in memory.

The intensity and timing of McCain’s negativity could proved damaging to the presumed GOP nominee, who has frequently pledged to run an honorable campaign. According to a story in today’s Times, some Republicans are worried the strategy could backfire:

Mr. McCain is clearly trying to sow doubts about his younger opponent, and bring him down a peg or two. But some Republicans worry that by going negative so early, and initiating so many of the attacks himself rather than leaving them to others, Mr. McCain risks coming across as angry or partisan in a way that could turn off some independents who have been attracted by his calls for respectful campaigning.

The drumbeat of attacks could also undermine his argument that he will champion a new brand of politics.

“The McCain campaign, I think, is being pulled in two directions,” said Todd Harris, a Republican strategist who worked for Mr. McCain in 2000. “On the one hand, this race is largely a referendum on Obama, and whether or not he’s going to pass the leadership threshold in the eyes of voters. So being aggressive against Obama on questions of leadership and trust and risk are important, but at the same time I think they need to be very careful because McCain is not at his best when he is being overly partisan and negative.”

The strategy reflects McCain’s inability to drive the debate. Because Obama dominates much of the news coverage — this was most apparent during last week’s overseas trip — the McCain camp seems to be in a purely reactive mode. For the most part, Obama is able to set the terms and choose the issues, so McCain finds himself attacking whatever Obama says or does. The strategy also allows Obama to take the high road — which plays nicely into his campaign’s narrative of rejecting the old rules of politics.

With more than three months until the election, the public could certainly tire of an excessively negative campaign. And if McCain relies on spreading false or misleading information, as many of his recent ads have, the whole effort could be counter-productive. It might benefit McCain to try to make his campaign more about him and less about petty attacks on his opponent.

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