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Can Voters See Through Sham Ads?

Dotty Lynch is the Senior Political Editor for CBS News. E-mail your questions and comments to Political Points

"It's the same kind of deal that was pulled on me," Sen. John McCain snapped when he heard about a new ad from an "independent" group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, claiming John Kerry lied about what occurred in Vietnam. McCain was referring to campaign tactics by the Bush campaign and a "527" group funded by Bush supporters against him in the 2000 campaign.

McCain also came to the defense of his fellow Vietnam vet, calling the ad "dishonest and dishonorable" and asking the White House to condemn it as well. They stopped short of doing that, but said that they had no quibble with John Kerry's service in Vietnam and then turned the argument around to Kerry, decrying use of soft money on "shadow" campaigns.

In fact, President Bush and his campaign have been Caesar's wife on the issue of Kerry's service. Except for one slip by Karen Hughes when she said she was "very troubled by Kerry's allegations that Vietnam vets were guilty of atrocities, the President and the campaign have deliberately stayed away from the issue, leaving the dirty work to others.

And, a slew of other Republicans and conservatives have stepped into the breach. Rush Limbaugh, the National Review, Sean Hannity among others have had a field day on Kerry's service medals and his anti-war years and the Swift Boat Veterans have only begun to fight.

The group has been heavily funded by Houston conservative Bob Perry, who has given over $5 million to Republicans in the past few years. Along with the ad, there is a book "Unfit for Command" which is being published by right-wing Regnery Press and being publicized by the conservative magazine Human Events, which shares office space with Regnery. The PR firm handling the projects is Creative Response Concepts run by former Pat Buchanan communications director Greg Mueller with the help of former Pat Robertson communications director, Mike Russell.

The co-author of the book is John O'Neill who has been debating John Kerry since the 1970s. In fact, it was the Nixon White House, not the Bush one, which was obsessed with Kerry's Vietnam service and anti-war history. Nixon himself spent an hour with O'Neill before he debated Kerry on the Dick Cavitt Show in 1971 and the current Swift Boat Vets saga has a rather Nixonian cast. Former Nixon aide Pat Buchanan has been out defending the project and pushing the book.

The Bush campaign has let this and other "independent" groups tar Kerry's Vietnam service but it is the Kerry campaign which has really hit the mother lode in the 527 department. The top four Democratic groups -- Americans Coming Together, the Media Fund, Move On and the New Democratic Network -- have spent $75 million so far this cycle.

They have allowed Kerry and Edwards to say over and over that they are running positive campaigns while they pound away at Bush and Cheney. On Friday, former Kerry campaign manager Jim Jordan through his 527, ACT, blasted "George W. Bush and his shameful record of lying about his Vietnam 'service'" and raised questions about VP Cheney's "six deferments" while Kerry himself remained above the fray and Edwards decried negative politics.

Except for wishing that they could control all that spending, the Kerry campaign has taken a rather benign attitude toward these groups viewing them as rich, roguish cousins rather than black sheep of the family.

Occasionally, they wince at Move On, which gins up the party's liberal base sponsoring theater parties with Michael Moore and running controversial anti-war ads that risk alienating the more moderate swing voters.

Voters are smart and will be able to see through these shams. Both campaigns are run by strategists who are masters of negative campaigning and who have a "take-no-prisoners" track record. It's up to the candidates to control these instincts. Pretending they are powerless to control these groups, calls into question just what kind of leaders they are.