U.S. election getting ugly on T.V.

Sen. John McCain by danagraves via flickr

Sen. John McCain by danagraves via flickr

Filed Oct. 7 2008

WASHINGTON – Muck is flying from both sides in the U.S. presidential campaign, only four weeks before Americans vote.

Republican John McCain is portrayed as a cancerous geezer, raising the specter that he will die in office, while Democrat Barack Obama is labeled a baby killer, in graphic attack ads launched this month on television and online.

Officially unendorsed by the candidates, these ads are created by outside groups operating under the cover of supposed political independence.

But analysts say that allows partisans to smear the other side, without damaging their preferred candidate’s brand.

“[The parties] have to have an arm’s length relationship with these groups,” said Albert May, an expert on political campaigns at George Washington University’s School of Media. “But it’s usually with a wink and a nod.”

Known as “swift-boating,” since 2004, when Democratic candidate John Kerry’s military record was tarnished by a group of Vietnam veterans, political smears have often been associated with Republicans.

But Sen. Obama’s backers can fling mud too. One group headed by the brother of Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean launched an especially ugly ad this month.

Mr. McCain is too old and sick to be president, the television ad implies, while showing close-ups of scars and lesions on the Arizona senator’s temple, relics of his battles with melanoma.

Meanwhile, character assassins in the Republican camp have taken aim at Mr. Obama’s support for abortion rights.

Sen. Obama lets babies die, suggests one television ad. It refers to Mr. Obama’s stance in the Illinois senate against banning partial birth abortions. Mr. Obama has said he opposed the measure partly because it did not include health exceptions for the mother.

Over scenes of a cooing newborn, the female narrator says, “Call Senator Obama, tell him to stop trying to overturn these basis human rights.”

Americans can expect more and uglier ads to pop up in the final weeks of the campaign, said Evan Tracey, president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political ads.

“The later you put ads in play,” Tracey said, “the more destructive they can be.”

Mr. McCain, for his part, wants to put young women in jail, says a group supporting Mr. Obama’s stance in favour of abortion rights. The group posted a video on YouTube featuring a pouting brunette in a mock turtle neck as prison bars loudly close on her.

“The straight talk about John McCain?” the female narrator says. “He’ll make women criminals.”

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