The 2008 White House race has groundbreaking candidates, record-shattering spending and crowded debates, but so far it lacks a more common feature of recent campaigns — negative and sometimes personal attacks.
It’s still early, though.
The sprawling fields of contenders in both parties have kept a largely civil tone through the early stages of a fast-starting White House race, mostly avoiding direct confrontations and leaving the rare attacks to surrogates.
“It has been a very polite campaign, and that is in the best interests of all the viable candidates,” said Democratic consultant Doug Hattaway, an aide to Al Gore during his unsuccessful 2000 presidential run.
“The candidates are trying to connect with voters and negativity tends to turn people off, particularly when you are attacking someone from your own party in a primary,” he said.
With polls showing U.S. voters hungry for change and fed up with the partisan climate in Washington, nobody wants to be the first to throw a punch at leaders like Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Rudy Giuliani.
“You can’t just tee it up and be angry for six months in this atmosphere,” said Democratic consultant Dane Strother. “There is so much dissension, so much anger — if you become that, you become the problem. Voters want it all to end.”
The Democratic contenders have been the most collegial in debates and on the campaign trail. They largely agree on most major issues, and have skirmished only slightly over who showed the most backbone in fighting to end the unpopular Iraq war.
With more disagreements on policy, the Republicans have been more feisty. Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney traded potshots on immigration, and many second-tier candidates have taken aim at the top three declared contenders — derisively and collectively known as “Rudy McRomney.”
Giuliani has been criticized by conservatives for his support of abortion rights and gay rights. But he has taken little heat from top rivals McCain and Romney and still leads national polls among Republicans.
TOO EARLY TO FIGHT
With the first primary votes still six months away, and 16 months to go before the November 2008 general election, Republican consultant Joe Gaylord said this was not the time to roll out the heavy ammunition on any opponent.
“At some point somebody is going to go after Giuliani, it’s just a matter of when,” Gaylord said. “But now we’re so far away from anyone voting no one would remember what any of them said anyway.”
Giuliani adviser Jim Dyke said the former New York mayor would get his turn in the bullseye when the early contests approached.
“There will come a time when the other campaigns become more aggressive because they’ll decide that he can win, and they have to distort his story to prevent that,” Dyke said.
The mostly polite tone of the campaign so far is a contrast to contentious primary battles of the past, including the 2004 Democratic race.
That featured fiery Howard Dean, who battled rivals as he rose in the polls and skirmished repeatedly with Rep. Richard Gephardt as he flamed out in the final weeks before losing the first contest in Iowa. In 2000, George W. Bush won a nasty Republican primary fight with Arizona Sen. John McCain on his way to winning the White House.
The rivalry between McCain and Romney has been the most personal of the 2008 campaign, while the staffs of Clinton and top rival Barack Obama, the Illinois senator, have shown little love for each other even as the candidates stayed respectful.
Obama cast himself as the candidate of hope and a positive vision, leaving him little room to go on the attack if he still trails Clinton, who leads national Democratic polls, as the first nominating contests approach.
While the 2008 campaign has been groundbreaking, with fundraising records falling and Obama and Clinton striving to become the first black and woman, respectively, in the White House, it is unlikely to remain positive for long.
“There is little doubt the campaign will get more heated and the elbows will get sharper closer to the voting,” Hattaway said.