The presidential campaign entered September rife with negativity, as the Republican National Committee launched a long-awaited assault on Democrat Al Gore's honesty and the major-party candidates strafed the countryside with increasingly vitriolic exchanges.
An RNC ad - due to begin running today in 16 states - accuses Gore of perpetually "reinventing" himself and spotlights his controversial 1996 fund-raising visit to a Southern California Buddhist temple.
The ad, approved by the Bush campaign, coincides with a sharply hostile turn in the tone adopted by the Republican and Democratic tickets. The decline in civility was prompted by Gore's rise in the polls, which have the race in a dead heat as the campaign heads into Labor Day, the traditional general election kickoff.
In recent days, GOP nominee George W. Bush has ignored his long-standing promise to run a positive campaign, railing at what he terms "seven years of failed leadership" on the part of President Clinton and Gore. His running mate, Dick Cheney, has repeatedly sniped that the Democrats have destroyed the nation's military strength.
On the Democrats' side, Gore has criticized Bush for not fleshing out policy proposals, and vice presidential nominee Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman has alternately asserted piety and slammed his Re publican opponents.
The sharpest weapon, and the one with the greatest potential for wounding both sides, was the Republican ad. It contrasts Gore's visit to the Hsi Lai temple in Los Angeles with his pledge to reform campaign finance laws. (The temple visit led to the federal felony conviction of a Gore fund-raiser. The vice president has said he did not know the event was a fund-raiser.)
The ad also cites Gore's much-maligned claim that he spurred the development of the Internet. "Al Gore, claiming credit for things he didn't even do," the ad says. A woman, unseen as Gore appears on a kitchen counter television, adds to his Internet claim: "Yeah, and I invented the remote control, too."
The commercial was a clear attempt to wrest back those voters - particularly women - who have turned from Bush to Gore in the past month. It will air across the crucial upper Midwest, where the election may well be decided, and in a host of other states considered up for grabs.
While the 30-second commercial is aimed at a character trait long considered a Gore weakness, it is a clear departure from the optimistic tone that Bush has long promised. As such, it has the potential to harm Bush as well.
"The most attractive part about Bush as been his optimistic, upbeat, hopeful message," said Democratic consultant Bill Carrick, who is not working for the Gore campaign. "It is a danger for him to be down and dirty, and it's probably compounded for him in that ... he isn't well known."
Republicans had damage control in mind yesterday as they described the ad as "light" and "good-natured," though it actually was sharp and pointed.
"In a fairly good-natured way, [the ad] makes a fundamental point," said RNC spokesman Clifford May. "I fail to see how that's personal."
Karl Rove, Bush's chief strategist, argued that Gore was to blame for the ad, since he vowed in his convention address to make campaign reform the first priority of a Gore administration.
"He doesn't have any credibility on that," Rove said.
In response, Democrats howled and laid the groundwork for a backlash against the Texas governor. The campaign trotted out Lieberman, the ticket's designated hitter on moral issues, who decried the GOP ad during a Seattle rally.
"I'm sorry to say that Governor Bush's promise to change the tone of American politics has run into the reality of a troubled Bush-Cheney campaign," the Connecticut senator said, "because these new attack ads break his promise not to launch personal attacks in this campaign, and they drag us back to the worst politics of the past."
The Democrats also unleashed a blizzard of communiques: citing a CNN report that the ad was a "negative ad" and calling attention to Bush's repeated promises to be positive. Gore communications director Mark Fabiani pointed out Bush's previous run of negativity, which occurred when Sen. John McCain of Arizona challenged him in the South Carolina primary.
"When George Bush's back is against the wall, he will do anything to get elected," said Fabiani, turning around the Bush campaign's assertion that Gore will say anything to get elected.
The Gore campaign released a new 30-second commercial yesterday in 17 states, showing Gore pushing his proposal for a patients' bill of rights.
Also yesterday, in a smattering of markets, a group called the Republican Leadership Coalition aired an ad warning that Gore would conduct a "raid on your Social Security check." The ad said Gore's plan to cover prescription drugs would take money from the elderly. It does not say that the proposed benefit would be voluntary.
While they set the stage for a potentially harsh 10 weeks before Election Day, the rhetorical fisticuffs were in keeping with tradition - the campaigns bolting out of the final convention and slashing away until November.
By historic standards, this year's debate is not even the least civil. By this time in 1992, President George Bush was railing at challenger Bill Clinton as a "fear monger," and Clinton was alleging that Bush was indifferent to economic worries and out to get the elderly.
In 1988, the wordplay was arguably worse, with Bush arguing that Democrat Michael S. Dukakis was coddling criminals and disrespectful of the American flag. Dukakis questioned Bush's fitness for office.