In battleground states across the country, voters are seeing a no-holds-barred, relentlessly negative advertising blitz as Election Day nears.
"This is going to be the most attack-driven election in the modern history of the presidency," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and author of "Packaging the Presidency and The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories that Shape the Political World." "It's also going to be the dirtiest."
Both the Kerry and Bush campaigns have contributed greatly to the nasty tenor, though third-party groups are also picking up a lot of the slack.
In Iowa, a television advertisement presented by the group truthandhope.org shows brutal images of men, women and children killed and injured in Iraq. The disturbing pictures are intercut with video of President Bush joking about not having found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, making him appear callous.
A Bush-Cheney ad playing on Spanish-speaking TV in Florida, and aimed at Cuban-Americans, accuses Sen. John Kerry of being a supporter of Fidel Castro, the communist dictator of Cuba. It takes Kerry's position on the embargo against Cuba out of context and portrays him as an extremist.
The Swift Boat Veterans, in their latest television ad, continue to tell American voters that "John Kerry cannot be trusted."
The Media Fund, a liberal group that opposes Bush's re-election, is airing an ad that attempts to draw a connection between Bush and the 9/11 hijackers from Saudi Arabia.
"This is the ugliest campaign for president that I've witnessed in my lifetime, and I started looking at elections in 1948," said Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.
No Holding Back
On occasion in the past, a presidential campaign might be noted for one particularly nasty ad -- President Lyndon Johnson's "Daisy" ad in 1964, for instance, which implied that his Republican challenger would start a nuclear war. Or the infamous 1988 "Willie Horton" ad from allies of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush. The ads, focusing on a convicted murderer who raped a woman while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison, were designed to paint Democrat Michael Dukakis as soft on crime.
In this campaign, Gans said, "There are thousands like that going on every day."
And since many are coming from third-party groups like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, "they don't have any responsibility to the electorate at all, and therefore their standards can be lower," said Gans.
"The problem is this stuff is not debate," Gans said after watching the TruthandHope.org ad. "You know, this is hurling nuclear weapons at people."
Negative campaigning is nothing new -- the John Adams-Thomas Jefferson races of 1796 and 1800 were particularly bitter and fueled false allegations. But as this campaign season draws to its final days, there has been a virtual explosion of negative ads -- on TV, radio, in mailings, leaflets and phone campaigns.
It can be difficult to keep track of them, as often they are released in secret. But whatever form they take, the advertisers are not holding back.
One leaflet put out by the Republican National Committee claims liberals want to ban the Bible and uses an image of a man proposing to another man as something liberals will have approved "if you don't vote."
A door hanger distributed to 100,000 black households in Missouri by the liberal group America Coming Together implies that Republicans want to oppress blacks just as segregationists did 40 years ago.
"This is what they used to do to keep us from voting," the ACT leaflet says alongside the decades-old image of a black man being assaulted with water from a fire hose.
"This is how Republicans keep African-Americans from voting now," the other side of the leaflet says, above a list of recent voting controversies.
Americans Are Eating It Up
And American voters seem to be eating up the mudslinging.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Web site Vid.Vote.org, run by a group called Texans for Truth, posted a video purporting to show George W. Bush, as governor of Texas, making an obscene gesture. Within 24 hours, according to computer records provided by the organization, the video file had been downloaded more than a million times.
To the victor will go the spoils. But there is a catch, says Jamieson.
"When you have a high level of attack and a high level of deception, it makes it much harder for the person who wins ultimately to govern," she said.
Jack Date, Brooke Brower and Maria Tio contributed to this report.