A Day of Thrust and Parry

Forty-six days before the election, Rep. Anne M. Northup (R-Ky.) unveils a campaign to skewer her opponent.
Forty-six days before the election, Rep. Anne M. Northup (R-Ky.) unveils a campaign to skewer her opponent. (Photos By Chet Rhodes -- Washingtonpost.com)
By Jim VandeHei and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 23, 2006

LOUISVILLE, Sept. 22 -- Rep. Anne M. Northup looked pleasant and motherly in her honeydew-green blazer, her smile as sweet as iced tea. "It's good to see all my friends here," the Kentucky Republican said in greeting the handful of reporters who braved strong wind and rain for an early-morning news conference.

Dead silence.

Then it was down to business. Friday's business for Northup was the attempted disembowelment of Democratic challenger John Yarmuth. Her weapon was Yarmuth's own words, preserved in a stack of newspaper columns that Northup brandished at the podium.

Voters, she warned, should know that the Democrat wanted to punish SUV owners, endorsed the legalization of marijuana and was all in favor of teenage drinking. "Parents should be concerned," she said, and so should everyone else. "He has a lot of goofy ideas."

Northup perhaps did not provide the most fair-minded interpretation of what Yarmuth had written as a columnist for the Louisville Eccentric Observer. But nor were her descriptions necessarily so far afield. The Democrat did once back taxes on gas-guzzling vehicles, some of which are manufactured in the district. He wrote a column about prison crowding that praised Canada for decriminalizing pot, and he suggested that lowering the drinking age to 18 is "something we should consider."

The GOP strategy in this competitive race is to shower Yarmuth's newspaper musings with a lot more attention in 2006 than they got when he penned them years ago. The Democrat is the founder of the Eccentric Observer, an alternative newspaper that may prove to be a tad too alternative for the Kentucky 3rd's conservative voters.

The day offered a vivid -- and at times bizarre -- window into the not-so-subtle art of the political attack. Northup and her campaign team have been sitting on the columns since early in the summer, savoring their possibilities and waiting for the right moment to drop them for maximum impact.

That moment came 46 days before Election Day. The first blow was the news conference at Northup headquarters, which is sandwiched between a laser-tag playground and a comic-book store. This was followed by the biggest television-advertising buy of her campaign. Northup plans to make the columns the centerpiece of her campaign from now to Nov. 7.

The strategy's launch made for an emotional day. As the news conference continued, Northup took on an agitated, apparently angry demeanor. Her voice rose as she recited her charges and parried skeptical questions from reporters. She looked through her stack of columns, looking for the one in which Yarmuth said voters like to be "misled or spat on."

The House campaign here has only recently resumed. Northup's 30-year-old son died this summer from a heart problem, and both candidates suspended most campaign activities until a few weeks ago. At the news conference, Northup's eyes looked heavy and tired.

Usually, politicians drop their most damaging "opposition research" without fingerprints, leaking it to a reporter or airing it through a third party. Northup, by contrast, hurled her charge like an anvil through glass.

The purpose is to make Yarmuth, an antiwar liberal who disagrees with her on virtually every issue, an unacceptable alternative -- even to many Democrats. They outnumber Republicans almost 2 to 1 here, which has made Northup a prime target since her first victory in 1996.

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