Smears and slurs are flying in the 2008 White House race, and with polls narrowing and first nominating contests just six weeks away, experts predict the rough stuff has only just begun.
Candidates are upbraiding party rivals, savaging foes in the opposite party, and reports are emerging of malevolent telephone-borne personal attacks on several candidates in the key leadoff state of Iowa.
Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, fresh from a brace of debate showdowns, are increasingly turning their guns on one another.
The former first lady is also target number one for Republicans, when they are not mocking one another over immigration policy, a hotbed issue for party activists.
“You can’t have a campaign without negativity,” said Professor Emmett Buell, of Denison University, Ohio, an expert on negative campaigning.
“By definition, a campaign is an attempt to make the argument that you are a superior choice to your opponents, you have to criticize (them) and extol yourself.”
The temperature of the Democratic race hit boiling last weekend, with an innocuous item by a conservative columnist suggesting front-runner Clinton had “scandalous” information on Obama.
Obama immediately called on Clinton to dish the dirt, or disown it, escalating a row which ended with her camp accusing him of falling for Republican tricks.
Clinton jabbed Obama with withering sarcasm on Tuesday, mocking his suggestion that his boyhood years living in Indonesia had given him a more nuanced worldview.
“Voters will judge whether living in a foreign country at the age of 10 prepares one to face the big complex international challenges we face,” she said.
A third Democrat, John Edwards also got into the action.
“Now we know what Senator Clinton meant when she talked about throwing mud’ in the last debate — when it comes to mud, Hillary Clinton says one thing and throws another,” he said through communications director Chris Kofinis.
The Clinton-Obama spat rumbles on because both candidates want it to.
Obama is using their exchanges to brand Clinton a product of a warped Washington political culture, while she claims he is too inexperienced to be president.
“As the contest gets closer and closer to the January kick-off, you are going to continue you see harsher exchanges, because the stakes are high and Clinton and Obama have a lot of money,” said Professor John Geer, of Vanderbilt University, Tennessee.
But launching negative attacks can sometimes backfire.
“Attackers often run the risk of increasing their own negatives, but the aim is to define someone in such a way that it is a revelation to voters … and reduce (their) support,” said Buell.
While the Clinton-Obama wars are in the open, a more vicious form of attacks is brewing in Iowa.
Several reports have detailed “push-polling” — a telephone call to voters masquerading as a poll, which highlights a perceived negative aspect of a politician’s character.
Republican Mitt Romney, is blasting “un-American” ‘push-poll’ slurs about his Mormon faith, a perceived liability among Christian evangelical voters.
Even the cancer battle of Democrat John Edwards’s wife Elizabeth appears to be the subject of such anonymous slanders.
Negative campaigning is as old as US politics itself, and dates from the days when attacks travelled by political pamphlet rather than YouTube video.
Famous recent examples include the 1988 campaign of former president George H.W. Bush who seized on video of an ill-at-ease Democratic rival Michael Dukakis in a battle tank as a narrator told viewers they couldn’t risk him as commander in chief.
In the 2004 presidential battle, Republicans used footage of Democrat John Kerry on a windsurfer, claiming he was indecisive: “John Kerry, whichever way the wind blows.”
Kerry also provided a masterclass on how not to fight back, taking the high road after “Swiftboat” ads impugned his Vietnam war service.
That experience, and the desire to let no attack go unanswered, seems seared on the souls of Obama and Clinton as they trade blows in the 2008 race.