The tenor of the presidential campaign turned sharply negative this week, but the mud-slinging will likely have little effect on next month's election as long as the U.S. economy remains in turmoil, political observers said.
"They can attack each other, they can throw pies, it just doesn't matter," said Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
What does matter, experts said, is the economy. A Gallup poll this week reported 69 percent of Americans pinpoint the economy as the nation's most critical problem, which means that even as insults and slurs clutter the campaign trail, the election will likely hinge on how Barack Obama and John McCain respond to what many are calling the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
This is especially true in battleground states.
"To me, it's very clear what is happening in Florida. People are not responding to the messages from either of the political campaigns. They are responding to the economic issues," said Dario Moreno, a Florida International University political science professor. "It's to the point where it really is a one-issue campaign: What are you going to do to get us out of this mess?"
Moreno's most recent Florida poll found that roughly one in two said the economy was the most important issue facing the country, up from 17 percent in April. Moreno suspects the percentage has grown higher in the past week.
While the economy may be on the forefront of voters' minds, many headlines and much cable news chatter has focused this week on what many veterans consider to be a sideshow of guilt by association.
While Cindy McCain has accused Obama of waging "the dirtiest campaign in American history," others suggest that McCain - who is trailing in the polls - is the bigger culprit.
McCain running mate Sarah Palin said recently it was time to "take the gloves off." Over the weekend, Palin first questioned Obama's ties to 1960s radical William Ayers, and McCain asked, "Who is the real Sen. Obama?" Obama, in turn, responded Monday with a Web site and short documentary exploring McCain's role in the 1980s savings-and-loan scandal.
A recent Obama commercial called McCain "erratic in a crisis" and "out of touch on the economy," while a McCain ad said Obama is "dangerous" and "dishonorable."
The Wisconsin Advertising Project released a study yesterday indicating that both McCain and Obama were engaging in more negative advertising than President George W. Bush and John Kerry four years ago.
To date, according to the report, 73 percent of McCain's ads and 61 percent of Obama's have been negative. But those figures changed dramatically in the past week. The study found that nearly 100 percent of McCain's ads since Sept. 28 and 34 percent of Obama's have been negative.
At this week's debate in Nashville, Tenn., though, the candidates opted to attack each other's policies rather than personalities. Still the McCain campaign has indicated it isn't ready to change course. Palin met with reporters Tuesday night and continued to question Obama's relationship with Ayers, contending it is an economic issue.
"It makes you wonder about the forthrightness, the truthfulness of the plans he's telling Americans with regards to the economic recovery," she said.
Some observers are decrying the negative turn taken in the race. The New York Times' editorial writers accused McCain and Palin of "running one of the most appalling campaigns we can remember," replete with "race-baiting and xenophobia."
But others say the onslaught has not been especially noxious. They point to the Swift Boat attacks against Kerry in 2004, the Willie Horton ads that hurt Michael S. Dukakis and Lyndon B. Johnson's iconic 1964 ad that cast Barry Goldwater as an unsteady overseer of the nation's nuclear arsenal.
Political campaigns will resort to accusatory messages in close races in particular, said Shawn Parry-Giles, a University of Maryland professor and director of the Center for Political Communication and Civic Leadership.
"In some ways, it's kind of late to be turning this negative," she said, noting that the Swift Boat ads that helped derail Kerry's bid appeared early in the summer of 2004. "Both candidates, I think, wanted to keep their message positive and focused on candidates, but when it comes down to it, the one who's behind often has no other choice."
It might be a losing tactic for McCain, suggests Virginia's Sabato. The nation's recent economic upheaval was a game-changer, he said, rendering negative campaigning moot.
Such campaigning "almost never works in big change election" such as this year's, Sabato said. "Why? By definition, the fundamentals are driving the election, in this case the deep unpopularity of the president, a foreign war and most of all, the economy. What the candidates say about each other becomes almost insignificant. I don't care what's in the headlines or what the press is covering. That's not how big-change elections are decided. They're decided on the issues."
Understanding those issues and deciphering the candidates' respective stances is another matter. Both campaigns, in fact, have kept Brooks Jackson and his staff busy. Jackson is the executive director of the nonpartisan FactCheck.org, which aims to separate fact from fiction in the sea of political chatter, debates and candidate claims. Jackson says sorting through the rumors, lies and mischaracterizations this campaign season has been like "drinking water from a fire hose."
After this week's debate, Jackson said he didn't get to bed until 5 a.m., as he and his staff were busy posting factual flubs. Many were statistical distortions and others historical misrepresentations. There's an audience for such record-setting, as the site claimed more than 6.4 million unique visitors last month.
"I think it speaks to people's curiosity and bewilderment when they're confronted with dubious sounding facts," said Jackson. "One says this, the other says that, they're both correcting each other. Naturally, you wonder, which is right?"
Between the truth and the falsehood, both candidates run the risk of talking around voters. Half of Tuesday's 90-minute debate was focused on the economy, yet in network focus groups, undecided voters still expressed uncertainty about how the candidates would address the crisis.
"In politics, we're so used to putting complex issues in a single sentence, [such as] 'We will withdraw from Iraq,' " said Moreno, the Florida professor. "The economic issue isn't one that allows you to have a simple sound-bite that really tells voters what you think. I follow this closely, and I can't really tell you how Obama or McCain will deal with this differently."
And if the voters can't differentiate the candidates' economic messages, their negative campaigning might have minimal sway next month.
"All of that other stuff is just background noise," Moreno said. "When Americans go into the booth Nov. 4, the question they'll ask themselves is, 'Who is going to fix the economy?' "