Starting Gate: And So It Begins

The campaign thus far has been a comparatively non-negative one. Sure, there have been those "red phone" moments and, on the Republican side at least, some of the traditional negative or "comparative" ads. But that brand of politics has been punished for the most part and the probable nominations of two candidates who have built their political power in part on their appeal outside of their parties seems to hold the promise of an uplifting, great debate this fall.

But this is politics and even if the two presidential candidates remain above the fray, they have little control over the eventual tone of the overall debate. That was demonstrated recently in North Carolina when the state Republican Party shrugged off John McCain's calls to cease airing an ad about Obama and the Rev. Wright controversy. And that was like playing tiddlywinks compared to what some of the shadowy 527 groups are capable of.

The challenge for the general election might not be staying positive – it might be figuring out how to make it look like the other side went negative first.

Both McCain and Barack Obama have put a great emphasis on the positive tone they intend to conduct the campaign in but that only sets an impossible bar. As Obama has discovered at times during the campaign, it's not difficult for your opponent to turn even the mildest criticism around on you. Yesterday provided a hint of what we may see a lot of in the coming months.

It all began a couple of weeks ago when McCain, in noting that a political adviser for the Hamas organization had said the group liked Obama, more or less said that the group, described by even Obama as a terrosist organization, had made something of an endorsement. McCain was asked about his comments on the Daily Show earlier this week and he said that the episode is "indicative of how some of our enemies view America. And I guarantee you, they're not going to endorse me."

That didn't sit well with the Democratic frontrunner who then accused McCain of engaging in "smear" campaigning and then went said this: "For him to toss out comments like that, I think, is an example of him losing his bearings as he pursues this nomination. We don't need name-calling in this debate."

McCain adviser Mark Salter then responded with a memo to "interested parties" accusing Obama of playing the "age card": "First, let us be clear about the nature of Senator Obama's attack today: He used the words 'losing his bearings' intentionally, a not particularly clever way of raising John McCain's age as an issue. This is typical of the Obama style of campaigning. We have all become familiar with Senator Obama's new brand of politics. First, you demand civility from your opponent, then you attack him, distort his record and send out surrogates to question his integrity. It is called hypocrisy, and it is the oldest kind of politics there is."

And so the general election campaign begins with an argument over which candidate is being more negative. It's the kind of game nobody wins but is an inevitable product of a political campaign.