One indicator of the newly negative tone came in last night's debate among leading Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Clinton accused Obama of being too cozy with a "slum landlord" in Chicago and took exception to his praise for the political skills of Ronald Reagan, a nemesis among many liberals.
"It certainly came across in the way that it was presented as though the Republicans had been standing up against the conventional wisdom with their ideas," Clinton said. "I'm just reacting to the fact, yes, they did have ideas, and they were bad ideas...bad for America, and I was fighting against those ideas when you were practicing law and representing your contributor [Tony] Rezko in his slum-landlord business in inner-city Chicago."
Obama replied, "What I said was...that Ronald Reagan was a transformative political figure because he was able to get Democrats to vote against their economic interests to form a majority to push through their agenda, an agenda that I objected to. Because while I was working on those streets watching those folks see their jobs shift overseas, you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board at Wal-Mart." Wal-Mart, which is based in the Clintons' former home state of Arkansas, is resented in many towns for crowding out small businesses. Obama said the Clinton campaign, including both Hillary and Bill Clinton, was habitually distorting his record.
Edwards struggled at times to interject himself into the exchanges between the two front-runners. He accused his two rivals of bickering while he tried to address real issues such as healthcare and fighting poverty.
"This kind of squabbling--how many children is this going to get healthcare?" Edwards asked. "How many people are going to get an education from this?"
On the Republican side, where the focus turned to Florida's primary January 29, things also are heating up. Rudy Giuliani, who has seen his lead there crumble after successive losses in the early primaries and caucuses, has been attacking John McCain, who is enjoying a surge in support. For example, Giuliani is faulting McCain for opposing President Bush's tax cuts in his first term.
And one of the most interesting exchanges was sparked when Chuck Norris, the action-film star who is supporting Republican Mike Huckabee, said the 71-year-old McCain is too old to handle the presidency. McCain quipped: "I'm going to send my 95-year-old mother to just go over and wash Chuck Norris's mouth out with soap."
Last weekend's results were a boost to Clinton, a Democratic senator from New York, and McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona. Clinton won the Nevada caucuses while McCain won the South Carolina primary. Both are scrambling to build momentum while their opponents are trying to block them.
But the race on both sides remains unsettled. Republican Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, and Obama won the Iowa caucuses on January 3. Then McCain and Clinton won their respective primaries in New Hampshire on January 8. GOP candidate Mitt Romney has won Michigan, Nevada, and Wyoming. Edwards, a former Democratic senator from North Carolina, has yet to win anywhere. Also without a victory is Giuliani, the former mayor of New York.
The problem for the candidates is that up until now, no one has been able to break from the pack and emerge as a dominant front-runner.
The next test will be on Saturday when Democrats hold their presidential primary in South Carolina. Obama is leading in the polls, partly on the strength of his support among African-Americans, who are expected to generate more than half the Democratic vote.
For the GOP, Florida is key on January 29. It will be Giulini's first big test, and even his advisers admit that failure to win there would seriously damage his candidacy.
Beyond all this, the nominations for both major parties could be decided February 5, when 24 states will hold nominating contests.
By Kenneth T. Walsh