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Going Negative

By David Paul Kuhn, Chief Political Writer

The spigot has opened on negative ads. And while the parties and candidates have made their contributions, it's groups not directly affiliated with the presidential campaigns that are drowning the airwaves with attack ads.

Controversial images and unsubstantiated accusations abound as the virtually unmonitored groups, both liberal and conservative, go negative in decisive swing states. Their influence is at new heights. As the crucial debates near, these vocal groups have helped establish the especially combative tone of the campaign.

In one ad, pictures of Osama bin Ladan and Mohammed Atta flash within seconds of an image of John Kerry, as a male voice asks, "Would you trust Kerry up against these fanatic killers?"

In another, President Bush is accused of being in financial cahoots with the "corrupt" Saudi royal family and linked to alleged backers of terrorism.

Kerry had a secret meeting with the enemy during the Vietnam War, says a third commercial. President Bush put American soldiers in a "quagmire," another ad charges.

And that's just the ad roster in September. Attack advertisements are the flavor of this presidential election. Although voters say they want ads to be positive and issue based, experts agree: negative advertising works.

Due to new campaign finance laws, groups with negligible governmental oversight are pouring millions into states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, hoping to sway undecided voters and rally the political fringes.

As Election Day nears, groups with no fundraising caps are increasingly dominating television advertising.

"Negative advertising works because people remember them more quickly, recall them more readily," said Kathleen Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "People are more influenced by negative information than positive information; they are more likely to sway attitudes."

Groups described by their tax identification number, 527 and 501, will spend well in excess of $100 million this election. Like the candidates themselves, the organizations behind these ads are strictly focused on the 18 to 21 states deemed battlegrounds.

Californians and New Yorkers, for example, will never see the four most recent attack ads; Iowans and Minnesotans are being inundated.

In its most recent ad, the Media Fund, a liberal advocacy group, alleges improper ties between the White House and the Saudi royal family, referred to as "close Bush family friends." The ad uses somber music and shows an image of Mr. Bush holding hands with Saudi royals.

In Arab cultures it is customary for men, as well as dignitaries, to walk hand in hand. The advertisement closes by asking, "are Bush and the Saudis too close for comfort?" Though some mostly indirect financial ties do exist between the Bushes and the Saudi royal family, there is no proof that this has had tangible consequences on U.S. policy. And there has been no proven impropriety or illegality.

A recent ad by the conservative advocacy group Progress for America questioning Kerry's ability to fight terrorists begins with flashes of bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Atta. The World Trade Center is shown in ruins, followed by Kerry's image. The association has infuriated the Kerry campaign.

The most recent ad by the liberal PAC references the more than 1,000 U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq. Followed by an image of an American soldier drowning in quicksand, the ad has equally angered the Bush campaign.

The conservative group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth began the unaffiliated advertising firestorm in August. A group of veterans with ties to the Bush campaign, the Swift Boat Vets claimed Kerry lied about his war record and betrayed fellow veterans by testifying to Congress about alleged atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam.

The same group is behind a recent ad accusing Kerry of having a secret meeting with the North Vietnamese. The meetings did take place during peace talks in Paris following Kerry's service overseas, but the talks were not secret. During Senate hearings, Kerry proudly cited them as an example of how he understood the war from all sides.

That unsubstantiated accusations are being made in a presidential election is not new. What is new in 2004 is that the groups making the charges are virtually unaccountable for what they say.

All four groups mentioned – MoveOn, Progress for America, the Media Fund and the Swift Boat Veterans – can raise unlimited amounts of money. Each is already spending tens of millions. And the extent of their influence will likely not be known until after the election.

"The biggest question mark on these types of groups is whether or not they are accountable to anybody," said Kent Cooper, the former chief of public records at the Federal Election Commission and now head of PoliticalMoneyLine, a group that monitors campaign spending.

"With a campaign you know you have campaign finance law where a candidate comes and says, 'I'm Joe Doe and I approve this message.' That's a tremendous accountability step," Cooper said. "When it was the political parties, it was the same way. They are organizations, with structure. There was accountability."

The 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance legislation limited donations to political parties and candidates, as well as mandated accountability. Though 527 and 501 groups file to the Internal Revenue Service, donors can remain unknown for weeks, if not months, after the ads air.

The political affiliation of the conservative Progress for America or the liberal is unclear to the viewer. Both have received multiple individual donations in excess of several million dollars.

"With these types of ads, you don't know if it's one person or two people, or if it's a group of guys getting together at a bar," Cooper said. "You don't know who they are. You have no accountability."

By David Paul Kuhn