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Character Attacks Heat Up Presidential Campaign

Character Attacks Heat Up U.S. Presidential Campaign

With the first presidential nominating contests less than a month away, candidates in both parties are stepping up their attacks on opponents.

The dynamics of the primary system drive candidates to appeal to the most aggressive voters, said Pietro Nivola, director of the Governance Studies Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, at a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters November 28.

"The result is when the chips are down, the races are getting tight as they are now ... it's just simply too tempting to go on the attack," Nivola said.

This is evident in the Democratic-nomination race between New York Senator Hillary Clinton and Illinois Senator Barack Obama. Polls show Clinton winning nationally, but with a narrower lead than in previous months. In Iowa, the first state to hold a nominating event, polls show the race too close to call.

Although the candidates initially said they would run positive campaigns, many of their recent events have focused on attacking each other's proposed policies. The battle continues on the Internet, where Clinton's Web site includes "The Fact Hub," showing Obama's false statements on health care. Obama's team launched "Hillary Attacks" to document her attacks against him.

"What's happened in both parties is as the Iowa caucuses and other events approach, the candidates running second and third start to get more desperate and start to criticize the front-runner," Howard Reiter, professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, told USINFO. "There is an old rule in politics that if you don't attack the front-runner, then the front-runner is likely to remain the front-runner. This is something we have done for a long time."

For the Republicans, this old rule is beginning to play out in Iowa, where former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, once considered a long-shot candidate, now narrowly leads in some polls. This has made him a new target for his rivals, who are criticizing decisions he made as governor.

On the national level, it is more complicated. Early in the Republican nomination race, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney often were considered to have the best chances of winning the nomination, and therefore faced attacks from other Republicans as well as from each other.

But today, there is no clear front-runner, meaning many candidates are attacking multiple opponents at once. For example, an ad by former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson features old video footage of Romney, Huckabee and Giuliani making statements that contradict their views on certain topics today.

Negative campaigning and personal attacks on political rivals are common in both primary and general elections. It is not just presidential races that go negative -- many closely contested congressional races feature attacks as well.

When asked in polls, Americans say they do not like watching candidates speak negatively of others. Yet political scientists say evidence shows that negative campaigns work, which is why they are consistently used.

"None of us like it when people attack other people," Sandy Maisel, professor of government at Colby College in Maine, told USINFO. "But, it works."

One reason attacks work is that Americans want to feel secure, and candidates can show their strength by being aggressive, especially when responding to another candidates' attacks, said Drew Westen, a psychology professor at Emory University in Atlanta.

Westen, author of the book The Political Brain, which examines how politicians connect emotionally with voters, told USINFO that while campaign attacks can be effective, they must be used by a candidate in a way that associates the negative comments strictly with the opponent. Too much negativity can make a candidate seem like the "angry candidate," and the angry candidate never wins, Westen said.

Primary candidates also must consider how their attacks may play out if they win the nomination, Maisel said. History has shown that while candidates may attack their opponents in the primaries, they often need their opponents' help to win the general election.

As a primary candidate, "you want to win, and to win you might have to attack your opponent in this race," Maisel said. "But you don't want to attack your opponent ... to the point that their supporters won't support you in the general election."


"In the first decades of this country, you had some pretty bitter quarrels between presidential candidates," Nivola said.

Some of America's earliest political contests were its meanest. Supporters of John Adams' bid for the presidency in 1796 called his opponent Thomas Jefferson cowardly, weak and a person who did not share Americans' values.

The 1828 election between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson was one of the country's bitterest. Jackson's supporters called Adams "the pimp," alleging that Adams convinced a woman to have an affair with a Russian leader. Adams' team fired back, accusing Jackson's wife of being a prostitute. Adams supporters called Jackson a "jackass" -- and used the illustration of a donkey to make the point.

In an ironic twist, Jackson liked the donkey so much he started using it on his own campaign material. Today, the donkey widely is used to represent the Democratic Party.


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