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No Love Fest, But No Fistfight Either

Supporters at a S.C. event really like Mike. (AP).

By Dan Balz
COLUMBIA, S.C. - Let's be honest. The press loves negative campaigns. Or at the least, the press seizes on anything that remotely looks, sounds or smells like negative campaigning. But one of the most remarkable features of this unusual presidential campaign is the virtual absence of truly negative campaigning, despite what you may be hearing on television.

There have been some harsh exchanges -- long distance and in debates. But negative ads are mostly missing in action this year. There were some in the Republican race in Iowa, where Mitt Romney went after Mike Huckabee, and in New Hampshire, where Romney and John McCain got into a briefly nasty spat. But since breaking camp in New Hampshire, the candidates have been on mostly good behavior.

South Carolina has been a cauldron of negativity in the past. Eight years ago, the bitter fight between McCain and George W. Bush became almost legendary for its negativity -- some of it on the up and up and some of it underground. McCain was the principal target and the experience scarred him for the rest of the campaign.

The past week has seen nothing to compare with that. The Republican race, which concludes here today, has been a rather sedate -- one fellow reporter called it boring this morning -- and straightforward contest. Veterans of this state's politics say that, whatever the press may be suggesting, this has been a pallid campaign by historical standards.

Allies of Huckabee have made calls that have been described as push polls in which they have imparted negative information about McCain. But it is not clear how widespread they are. Candidate ads run back-to-back-to-back on the local news but there have been no truly negative ads from the candidates.

McCain and Huckabee have battled for first place but have engaged only minimally. Romney is running lots of ads but left the state on Thursday. Fred Thompson, who needs a very strong finish here, has complained about Huckabee's outside groups but his low-key and generally avuncular personality muffles anything that smacks of real criticism.

The Democratic race took a negative turn over last weekend, as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama got into a quarrel over whether the Clinton camp was playing the race card. But they quickly pulled back from the brink, declaring a truce last Monday.

In Nevada, union allies of Obama have run negative ads in Spanish attacking Clinton, and the two sides have argued over caucus rules.

But the most visible campaign event of the week, the Democratic debate in Las Vegas on Tuesday, was noteworthy for its civil tone and serious discussion. The candidates aired out important differences, but there was hardly a negative word uttered. John Edwards, who had attacked Clinton during their debate in New Hampshire earlier in the month and often has been the Democratic aggressor in debates, adopted a far different tone in Las Vegas.

Republican strategists say the absence of negativity in the GOP race reflects the muddled nature of the race. In a multi-candidate field, the risks of going on the attack outweigh the benefits. "Contrast is most tricky in crowded fields," one GOP strategist wrote in an e-mail Saturday morning.

Another strategist who is working for one of the candidates asked, "Who do you hit? You don't know what the benefit will be or what the collateral damage will be. It makes it very hard to calculate that. You just don't know what's going to happen."

Iowa and New Hampshire were largely two-person contests in the Republican race: Romney vs. Huckabee in Iowa; Romney vs. McCain in New Hampshire. In South Carolina, with four candidates looking to survive the primary, no one was tempted to launch a serious attack.

In those contests, Romney was the most aggressive of the candidates. His attacks on Huckabee prompted the former Arkansas governor's advisers to insist that he hit back. Huckabee was all set but then decided against doing so (though he still aired the anti-Romney ad for reporters) and won the caucuses.

Mark McKinnon, media adviser to McCain, said that Romney paid a price for his attacks there and in New Hampshire. "I think Romney proved that negative ads equal diminishing returns this year," he wrote in an e-mail Saturday morning.

If the Republicans are wary of going negative because of the crowded field of candidates, Democrats appear nervous because of the unusual dynamic of their race. Obama has been constrained from turning negative because he's the candidate of hope and inspiration. Attacks don't fit that profile. Clinton has found that attacking Obama is extremely difficult, in part because of his appeal and in part because of his race.

McKinnon also linked the diminishment of negative ads to the mood of the voters. "When voters are clearly tired of negative, partisan bickering in Washington, I think it means they don't want bickering in the election either," he said. "But if history is any judge, the candidates will soon ignore the electorate and resort to type."

McKinnon may prove correct -- but there have been other predictions of imminent outbreaks of negativity that have fallen short of expectations. Many strategists anticipated that, after her third-place finish in Iowa, Clinton would have to attack Obama in New Hampshire.

Her advisers decided against putting any negative ads on television. Time was too short, they believed, for the attacks to sink in, and the resulting coverage of her shift in strategy would crowd out the message she wanted to deliver. As it turned out, they were correct, or lucky -- or both.

Republicans may face similar questions in the days ahead. There's little likelihood that the race will clarify itself until after Florida's Jan. 29 primary. That means negative ads in the Feb. 5 states will be a risk. Candidates have limited money and have run few ads in any of those states. To start suddenly with attacks on an opponent may be foolhardy.

There are tough days ahead in both these nomination battles and there will be tough words traded among the candidates. But so far these campaigns have far less negative than anyone might have predicted -- regardless of what you may hear on your favorite TV talk show.

By Washington Post editors  |  January 19, 2008; 12:06 PM ET
Categories:  Dan Balz's Take  
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