Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez hold a banner on July 1. (AFP PHOTO/JUAN BARRETO)

To be clear, the campaign was never really all that nice. But a few developments this week make it clear that neither side is holding much back with just less than four months to go until the November general election.

First, Mitt Romney’s campaign put out word that it would start accusing President Obama of being a “liar” when it comes to his campaign’s and allies’ attacks on Romney’s Bain Capital record. And then it released an ad on Thursday that did just that.

The ad is effectively a warning shot that Romney will return fire — in much more personal terms — when he is personally attacked.

Obama’s campaign, later Thursday morning, returned the favor, accusing Romney of “lying” about when he left Bain Capital, calling it his “big Bain lie.”

“It’s time for Mitt Romney to come clean so that the American people can make their own judgments about his record and his motivations,” deputy Obama campaign manager Stephanie Cutter said.

Obama’s allies at Priorities USA Action also released its own personal and hard-hitting Spanish-language ads on Wednesday. The ads take aim at Romney’s “I’m not concerned about the very poor” line and featuring one person who says Romney is “a person without feelings.” (Pretty harsh stuff. It would be a bigger news story if the ad wasn’t in Spanish.)

And lastly came a little tiff — that became a big tiff — over Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. After Romney dinged Obama for saying in a local TV interview that Chavez wasn’t much of a threat (“stunning,” “shocking”), Obama’s campaign responded with a quick and full-throated statement denouncing Romney for emboldening Chavez.

“People like Hugo Chavez want attention – and that’s exactly what Mitt Romney and his supporters gave him today,” Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt said. “Gov. Romney is only playing into the hands of Chavez by acting like he’s 10-feet tall.”

It may not seem like these developments are out of the ordinary in what has already been a pretty rough-and-tumble campaign, but they represent a subtle shift in the race to the kind of hair-trigger politics and personal attacks that really raise eyebrows (think: Newt Gingrich’s and his super PAC’s attacks on Bain during the primary).

Obama has attacked Bain, yes, but there’s a difference between saying Romney outsourced jobs or laid people off and saying he’s devoid of human emotion and emboldening dictators.

Likewise, calling someone a “liar” is a step beyond merely saying their attacks aren’t true; it’s a more personal and sharper response that takes aim at their character in a more direct way.

The quick back-and-forth over what had been a sidebar-type story like Chavez shows neither side is going to sit idly by while the opponent is attacking. Those attacks, from here on out, will be met with equal (or greater) and opposite force.

Once this seal has been broken, there is generally no turning back. The question is where is the line where a forceful response ends and jumping the shark begins. And what point does this start looking a little too much like Reality TV and not a presidential campaign.

Expect that line to be tested plenty in the weeks and months ahead, beginning now.

Lingle poll shows her ahead: A poll from the campaign of former Hawaii governor Linda Lingle (R) shows her leading Rep. Mazie Hirono (D) by six points — the first poll showing the Republican leading in a very Democratic state.

The Voter/Consumer Research poll shows Lingle leading Hirono, the favorite in the Democratic primary, 45 percent to 40 percent. The same pollster showed Hirono leading by 6 points in April and 11 points in September.

Against the more moderate former congressman Ed Case (D), Case leads Lingle 41 percent to 40 percent.

“I am very pleased to see that my message of bipartisanship and common-sense solutions to our state and nation’s problems is resonating with the voters of Hawaii,” the former governor said in a statement.

The latest independent poll, from the Hono­lulu Civil Beat, had Lingle down six points, and Hirono is still favored to win here, but polling has been all over the place.

Jackson Jr. getting treatment for ‘mood disorder’: Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) is being treated for a “mood disorder,” his doctor’s office said in a statement today.

The congressman disappeared from Washington on June 10; two weeks later his office said he was on medical leave due to “exhaustion” but shed no additional light on his situation. And last week, a new statement cited severe “physical and emotional ailments.”

In the new statement from his doctors, there is little more detail, except to say that Jackson is “responding positively to treatment and is expected to make a full recovery” and that he is not being treated for alcohol or substance abuse. (NBC News cited Jackson friends Wednesday who said he was being treated for alcoholism.)

The news will likely only prompt more speculation about Jackson’s condition.


Reflecting what we said above, Romney tells Fox News, “If you’re responding, you’re losing.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) says Romney wanted to get booed at the NAACP event in Houston.

A strong new ad from North Dakota Democratic Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp, using pee wee football players as a metaphor for the impasse in Washington.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) raised a very strong $2.6 million in the second quarter and bought $3 million worth of ad time for the fall. She has $3.6 million cash on hand.

Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) raised $2.2 million in the second quarter and has $3.5 million cash on hand in the Wisconsin Senate race.

Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst leads Solicitor General Ted Cruz by eight points in their July 31 GOP Senate run-off, according to a poll conducted for Dewhurst’s campaign. A recent Cruz polled showed Cruz ahead by about the same margin.

Former Michigan state senator Nancy Cassis (R), the GOP establishment’s write-in candidate in the primary to replace Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.), will run in the special election held the same day. Meanwhile, Cassis has already self-funded $200,000 for the campaign.


Money gap may not matter so much in November” — T.W. Farnam, Washington Post

“Did Bob Kerrey’s wife sabotage his Senate campaign by dissing Nebraska?” — Suzi Parker, Washington Post

For a Soaring Political Career, Uncertain Turns” — Monica Davey, New York Times

Updated at 8:46 a.m.