Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune

Minnesota Democrat Coleen Rowley doesn’t know the difference between a Nazi and a U.S. Marine. Her Republican opponent, incumbent John Kline, has been corrupted by special interests.

That, at least, is what they say about each other.

In the final days of the midterm congressional elections, candidates across the nation are getting down to what they think voters really ought to know.

As they finish spending an estimated record $2 billion on political advertising, they sometimes emphasize such leading issues as Iraq, the budget deficit and health care. Just as often, they don’t.

In down-to-the-wire TV ads, debates and campaign fliers, themes of character hold sway instead. Analysts say the campaigns are pulling out all the stops, getting personal and going as negative as the ebb and flow of politics demands.

“Everyone sees what the stakes are,” said Joseph Kunkel, a political scientist at Minnesota State University, Mankato. “We’re talking about control of the government.”

It’s not always a pretty picture. The tougher the fight, analysts say, the more likely voters are to hear appeals that have little to do with the issues they’ll face in Congress.

In Virginia, for example, the close Senate race between Republican George Allen and Democrat Jim Webb was taken over this week by attacks on lurid sexual passages in some of Webb’s past war novels. In Wisconsin, Democrat Ron Kind stands accused of paying for sex _ he voted to fund national studies on human sexuality.

Although Republicans have been associated with some of the most aggressive campaign ads in recent years, they’re not the only ones playing hardball. In Minnesota, congressional candidate Patty Wetterling was accused of going negative with a TV spot charging that GOP leaders “admitted covering up” the predatory behavior of former Florida Rep. Mark Foley, who allegedly sent sexual e-mails to teenage House pages.

In Pennsylvania, Democrats have run spots questioning the “family values” of Republican Rep. Don Sherwood, who was accused by his former mistress of choking her.

“Democrats have been reluctant to hit back and go negative,” said national Democratic strategist Peter Fenn, whose firm did the Wetterling ad. “This year, they’ve said, ‘We’re not going to sit back and let these guys cream us.’ ”

Another reason for this year’s uptick in negativity is the flood of campaign cash, which enabled the candidates to hit the air early and often. Wetterling’s showdown with Republican Michele Bachmann has raked in a combined $4.6 million, a record for a House contest in Minnesota.

“At this time of year, people often say that campaigns are getting nastier,” Kunkel said. “Probably what’s going on is it started earlier.”

For better or worse, most analysts say the ugliness serves a purpose: It works. It energizes a candidate’s base and sways swing voters.

For their part, political operatives say negative attacks can sharpen differences between candidates and bring to light important character traits.