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The Year Of Playing Dirtier

The RNC has raised eyebrows with an ad consisting almost entirely of al-Qaeda videos starring Osama bin Laden and his top deputies. There is no sound except the ticking of a bomb before the final warning: "These are the stakes. Vote November 7th." John G. Geer, a Vanderbilt professor who has written a book defending negative political ads, said he told a well-connected Republican friend in Washington that the ticking-bomb ploy seemed like a desperation move. The friend e-mailed back: "John, we're desperate!"

"Look, the electorate is polarized, the stakes are large, and neither party has much to run on right now," Geer said. "You can expect to see some pretty outlandish ads."

The "pays for sex" ad against Kind in Wisconsin -- along with a similar one aired against Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.) -- may be the most extreme. It says Kind spent tax dollars to study "the sex lives of Vietnamese prostitutes" and "the masturbation habits of old men" and "to pay teenage girls to watch pornographic movies with probes connected to their genitalia." Cue the punch line: "Ron Kind pays for sex, but not for soldiers." The Wisconsin Republican Party denounced the ad, and several TV stations refused to air it, but that only got it more attention. It is the centerpiece of Nelson's Web site: "This ad is so powerful, a sitting U.S. Congressman threatened TV stations with legal action if they dared to play it."

Kind joked in an interview that he has been paying for sex ever since he said "I do." But on a more serious note, he said Nelson's attack ad is typical of modern politics, in which desperate candidates can attract media coverage and rally their base with distortion. He opposed the amendment in question -- as did many Republicans -- because he does not think Congress should interfere in peer-reviewed NIH studies, not because of any interest in teenage genitalia. That particular study, incidentally, had nothing to do with teenagers.

"Man, it's a crazy system, and it's getting worse every year," Kind said. "We rip each other to shreds, and then we're all supposed to come back to Washington and try to work together. It's a hell of a way to elect representatives."

At least it is clear who is responsible for Nelson's ad: Nelson. The Playboy ad bashing Ford, on the other hand, is a typical product of the attack politics of 2006. Its beneficiary, GOP Senate candidate Bob Corker, called it "tacky" but said he cannot do anything about an RNC ad. Even RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman said he is powerless to stop it; it is an "independent expenditure" of the RNC, out of the committee's control. He doesn't seem too upset about it, though. Corker has been rising in the polls since it started airing.

Experts say that in the past, negative ads were usually more accurate, better documented and more informative than positive ads; there was a higher burden of proof. Stanford's Iyengar thinks that is still true for candidate-funded messages, which now require candidates to say they approved them. But it is not true when the messages are produced by political parties, shadowy independent groups or partisans posting on YouTube.

"You're going to see more of this sensational, off-the-wall stuff," Iyengar said. "If you get people disgusted, they might withdraw from politics, and that's the real goal these days."

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