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Air assault

Candidates are about to unleash a slew of negative ads, but is that really all bad?

Air assault

(An Iowa TV director previews a John Edwards ad.)

When Americans watch television this Christmas season, they can expect a few familiar standards: a dancing Bing Crosby, a tearful Jimmy Stewart, and a repentant Charlie Brown. In New Hampshire and Iowa, television viewers can also expect depictions of a flip-flopping Mitt Romney and a finger-pointing Hillary Clinton.

Crosby, Stewart, and Brown come courtesy of classic holiday films, but Romney and Clinton come courtesy of negative political ads aimed at jarring voters during the last four weeks before the presidential primaries begin.

Negative ads are staples of presidential contests, but timing is everything this year: With the first caucus in Iowa moved up to Jan. 3-nearly two weeks earlier than usual-the primary season collides with the Christmas season, leaving some wondering how to jab their opponents without alienating voters focused more on presents than politics.

Steve McMahon, a Democratic strategist who ran Howard Dean's presidential advertising campaign in 2003 and 2004, summed up the Christmas quandary: "Attack ads don't necessarily blend well with Santa Claus and holiday cheer."

But campaigns and independent groups depend on negative ads to draw contrasts between candidates that glowing ads with quaint scenes of family gatherings don't accomplish. They draw those contrasts most sharply in the final weeks before voters make up their minds.

Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson threw down the gauntlet at the CNN/YouTube debate in St. Petersburg, Fla., one week after Thanksgiving. Each of the eight candidates at the debate aired a 30-second campaign commercial during the event.

Only Thompson's ad directly pointed fingers. The spot began with a single phrase on the screen: "What were some saying during the Republican Revolution?" A clip followed of Romney declaring: "I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country. I believe since Roe v. Wade has been the law for 20 years we should sustain and support it."

Then came a clip of Republican candidate Mike Huckabee saying: "Others have suggested a surcharge on the income tax. That's acceptable. I'm fine with that. Others have suggested perhaps a sales tax. That's fine."

The ad aimed for weak spots, but Huckabee anticipated criticism of his fiscal policies. The candidate quickly responded with a slew of statistics about his record during 11 years as governor of Arkansas: "I cut 90 taxes. . . . The income tax remained exactly what it was. The sales tax is one penny higher. But I did do a number of tax cuts that helped a lot of people all over the place."

Romney didn't flinch either. Instead, the candidate used Thompson's ad to highlight his conversion to a pro-life position: "On abortion I was wrong . . . I'm proud to be pro-life. I'm not going to be apologizing for becoming pro-life."

Less than a week later, Romney faced negative ads from pro-abortion Republicans who believe he should apologize to them. The Republican Majority for Choice rolled out the first negative campaign ads on stations in Iowa and New Hampshire in early December.

The independent, pro-abortion group spent $100,000 to air 30-second advertising spots in the early primary states featuring a photo of Romney that flips back and forth across the screen. A narrator tells viewers that Romney has changed his position on abortion three times since 1994 and includes clips of the Republican candidate offering both pro-abortion and pro-life views.

The ad ends with the narrator encouraging pro-abortion Republicans to ask the pro-life Romney: "Flip-flop just one more time-and stay there."

John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, told WORLD that though the Romney ad doesn't contain new information, it does force Romney to stay on the defense. It also tests Romney's ability to deliver a consistent response to an issue he constantly confronts. So far, he's succeeding, says Geer: "He's developed a story line."

Romney's opponents also hope bringing up the candidate's pro-abortion past will plant doubt about whether his conversion to a pro-life position was politically motivated. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has said Romney's biggest hurdle is "convincing Republicans he has principled positions on moral issues."

Republican candidates have been slow to run negative ads against each other, but Geer says they are likely preparing. Based on the aggressive tones in recent debates, he says, "They're sharpening their knives."

Meanwhile, Republicans have been quicker to run ads against Democratic opponents, especially Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. McCain's campaign created an ad lambasting Clinton for earmarking $1 million in federal funds for a museum commemorating the Woodstock music festival in New York. (Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., successfully led an effort to squash the earmark.)

Romney's campaign began airing an ad in November criticizing "Hillary and the other Democrats" for supporting a pathway to citizenship for illegal aliens who meet certain requirements.

Clinton responded with her own television ad this month that begins: "Here they go again-the same old Republican attack machine is back. Why?" The narrator offers this answer: "Maybe it's because they know that there's one candidate with the strength and experience to get us out of Iraq . . . one candidate committed to cutting the huge Republican deficit."

Though Clinton is the target of most Republican firepower, media analysts say that dynamic could work in her favor: When Republican opponents don't mention other Democratic contenders, Clinton may appear to be the inevitable nominee, an image she has painstakingly cultivated in her own campaign.

While Geer says more negative ads are likely to roll out during the Christmas season, he maintains that negative ads are a positive step in a presidential campaign. The political scientist recently authored In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns and analyzed negative ads in presidential races from 1960 to 2004.

Geer found that negative ads usually focus on policy issues more than positive ads. "Positive ads show things like candidates holding children and talking about the future," he said. "What does that tell you about policy? Not much."

Negative ads tend to spotlight candidates' positions on issues, and they ask voters to examine the details of a candidate's proposals and claims. "We need to be debating and having these discussions," says Geer. "Focusing only on the positive is a recipe for disaster, and it's not democratic."

While candidates need to tread carefully when airing ads during the holiday season, New Hampshire Republican Party president Fergus Cullen says voters in his state expect the seasons to overlap. "I expect candidates will work the Communion line at St. Joe's on Christmas Eve," he joked to reporters. "It won't harm candidates if they run aggressive campaigns."

In the meantime, retailers who depend on Christmas sales are waiting to see if political advertising will harm their bottom line this year. Federal law requires television stations to provide equal air time to candidates beginning 45 days before an election. That means campaigns willing to pay top dollar for prime television time could bump retailers who reserved advertising space months ago.

Evan Tracey of the TNS Campaign Media Analysis Group told the Associated Press that political ads could wreak havoc for retailers if 16 candidates and a slew of interest groups begin battling for the same air time over the holidays: "This is just like adding a hailstorm to a hurricane."

Geer says candidates who secure prime air time for advertising will still face the stiffest reality of the Christmas season: "People tune out politics."

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.