After Aurora shooting, low expectations for more campaign civility

CBS

President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney
AP

(CBS News) Following the mass shooting in Aurora, Colo., on Friday, both President Obama and his GOP competitor Mitt Romney called for a reprieve from politics. But now that the weekend is over, the campaigns are back to the dirty business of undercutting one another.

Friday's tragedy, which left 12 people dead, 58 injured and the nation stunned, spurred some temporary shows of civility from the presidential campaigns, but there's little to suggest the tenor of the 2012 election will change permanently.

In contrast to last year's mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona, where Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords was shot, Washington has so far reacted to the Colorado shooting with more calls for gun control than for civility. And with billions on the table this election season to spend against each other, it's unlikely the candidates or their supporters will be willing to hold their punches.

Mr. Obama's campaign was the first to publicly break the peace Monday with a tweet attacking Romney on a series of issues: "Tax returns. Bundlers. Bain. MA records & now key docs from Olympics. When it comes to secrecy, Mitt takes the gold!" Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod tweeted, linking to a story from ABC News. Later in the afternoon, the president's campaign held a conference call with reporters, calling Romney's upcoming trip overseas "one long photo-op and fundraising tour."

The public remark came after a somber weekend in which the president traveled to Colorado and visited with survivors of the mass shooting. Romney, marking a rare occasion of praise for the president, lauded him for the trip. Both campaigns have said they are suspending their political ads in Colorado through this week.

The president's supporters say there's nothing negative about scrutinizing Romney's record, but the Romney campaign not surprisingly took issue with today's criticisms.

"With lack of a reason for re-election, President Obama has made a habit of relying on falsehoods, dishonesties and distortions to try and tear down Mitt Romney instead," Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul said Monday.

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Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee held its own conference call Monday to charge that Mr. Obama doesn't support small business owners -- a line of attack started last week.

(Obama speaks in Aurora, Co., on Sunday.)

"President Obama practices Chicago-style economics, where he rewards donors and cronies with political payoffs leading to disastrous results like Solyndra," said Melissa Ball, a small business owner from Virginia who was featured on the call.

Fair or not, a significant portion of the presidential campaign has been negative in tone so far. According to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, nearly 70 percent of ads in this presidential race have been negative.

The Obama campaign, however, has been more positive than the Romney campaign and has actually aired more positive ads than negative ones: 52 percent of the Obama campaign's ads are reportedly positive and 48 percent are negative. By comparison, 61 percent negative of the Romney campaign ads aired have been negative.

The overall percentage of negative ads is bumped up by the overwhelmingly negative advertising of super PACs, but some of those groups are also reacting to Friday's tragedy. For instance, the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities Action USA said it suspended its advertising in the wake of the shooting.

(Romney called for unity following the shooting on Friday.)

Still, strategists from both parties say they don't expect any permanent changes in the tone of the campaign. "Even though the tragedy in Colorado shined a light on just how petty some of the campaign has become, I think it will have only a temporary impact on the tone of this race," one Democratic strategist said.

Another Democratic strategist pointed out that in addition to the shooting, the current political climate may cool off this week due to other, unrelated events like the start of the Olympics. After that, however -- with the announcement of Romney's running mate and the Democratic and Republican conventions all looming -- the dialogue is sure to quickly heat up again.

One Republican strategist agreed that while the campaigns may be less negative for now, "The law of political gravity will bring them back to where they were over time."

The GOP strategist pointed out that the Obama campaign didn't hesitate from airing ads equating Romney's business to a vampire or launching other harsh attacks, even after the president called for more political civility in the wake of the 2011 Tucson shooting.

The left-leaning centrist group Third Way similarly called for elevated political discourse after the Tucson shooting. Jim Kessler, senior vice president for policy and a co-founder of the group, said the civility lasted only a couple weeks because of the polarized state of the country and the Congress at the time. Kessler said he doubts this tragedy would spur the same requests for civility.

Such events, he said, "take on a personality of their own. The Giffords shooting was about our national dialogue. The Virginia Tech shooting was about mentally ill people getting guns... This seems to be one that is igniting a debate about whether there is a need for gun control or not."

While the attacks may keep coming from both the Obama and Romney campaigns, Kessler contended that the tone of the campaign is still tolerable at this point.

"The [1988] Willie Horton ad was unfair, the [2004] Swift Boat ads were unfair, but we haven't seen any ads so far [this year] that make us think this is an outright lie or distortion," he said. "We haven't seen anything that's created a new boundary for what is acceptable -- there's just a lot of it."

Kessler continued, "It's hard to have civility when both parties are raising over $1 billion to attack each other."

Leigh Ann Caldwell contributed to this report.

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