updated 10/3/2006 9:22:37 AM ET 2006-10-03T13:22:37

To judge from a recent wave of political advertising, politicians in America are hypocritical, rub shoulders with criminals, vote against American values and don't support U.S. troops.

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With five weeks to Election Day and control of Congress at stake, negative ads are making their way onto the airwaves and into mailboxes earlier and in greater volumes than ever before. Candidates, political parties and advocacy groups are stretching, bending or spinning the truth in search of an edge with voters.

This week, the parties have ramped up their ad placements, attacking opponents on their past votes, their past business dealings, and their links to big donors.

The result is a video medley of ads that range from clever to tasteless, from subtle to blunt.

In Pennsylvania, Republican Sen. Rick Santorum is linking opponent Bob Casey to politicians and businessmen whose financial dealings have come under law enforcement scrutiny. A pro-Democrat independent veteran's group is running an ad in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Montana accusing Santorum, Sen. George Allen, R-Va., and Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., of voting against upgraded body armor for troops in Iraq.

In North Carolina, perennial candidate Vernon Robinson, a Republican, has a new ad accusing Rep. Brad Miller, the Democratic incumbent, of voting for sexual research by the National Institutes of Health but missing a vote to pay for military body armor.

Images don’t hold up
In each case, the powerful images wilt under scrutiny.

2006 key racesSantorum's ad depicts actors behind bars that a narrator describes as Casey's "campaign team." The men, though not identified by name in the ad, are supposed to represent well-known figures in Pennsylvania politics who have been the subject of law enforcement investigations. Santorum's campaign has conceded that the men have not donated to Casey's Senate campaign and that two of them had even donated to Santorum. The senator's campaign gave the money to nonprofit groups.

The veterans' ad shows a marksman shooting at two protective vests — one stops the bullets, the other doesn't. The marksman, an Army reservist who served in Iraq, then accuses Allen, Santorum and Burns of voting against money for the newer jackets. The reference is to a Senate vote on a Democratic amendment in 2003 that would have provided $1 billion for equipment for National Guard and Reserves. An April 2005 Government Accountability report said that a surge in demand, not lack of money, contributed to body armor shortages for troops.

The Robinson ad in North Carolina uses words seldom heard in political advertising, such as genitalia and masturbation, and focuses on a 2004 attempt in the House to cut $1.5 million for sex-related studies by the National Institutes of Health. The research included a study on San Francisco's Asian prostitutes and on transgendered American Indians. NIH officials said the research helped address public health issues such as HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, contraception and infertility. The vote to strip the money failed 212-210.

The ad also accuses Miller of missing a vote on body armor for troops. It doesn't mention that Miller and other members of Congress were part of a delegation visiting Iraq at the time.

"I was actually in Iraq wearing body armor," Miller said in an interview.

Foley scandal to play bigger role in ads?
Democrats have also tried to link Republican members of Congress to former Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to fraud, tax evasion and bribery charges. It may be too early to tell if Washington's latest scandal — sexually explicit electronic messages reportedly sent by Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., to teenage congressional pages — end up in ads during the remaining five weeks of the campaign.

Foley's Democratic opponent, Tim Mahoney, began airing an ad Monday whose subtle reference to Foley is only evident in light of the budding scandal. "Every generation," Mahoney says on camera, "has the responsibility of turning over to the next generation an America that's more moral and one that offers greater opportunity to their children."

In Pennsylvania, Democrat Chris Carney aired an ad last week that draws attention to Republican Rep. Don Sherwood's affair with a woman who accused him of abuse in a lawsuit. Sherwood and the woman settled the lawsuit in a confidential agreement. The ad does not mention that Sherwood was not charged.

To be sure, negative ads are not new to politics. American election history is filled with examples of vicious political attacks on candidates.

Increasing frequency
But political experts say the timing is growing earlier and the frequency greater. Political scholars disagree whether such ads serve a useful purpose or damage political discourse.

"The country is not on the verge of collapse because of negative ads," said John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee who has studied ad trends and their impact. "At the end of the day you can learn a lot from these negative ads. Positive ads tend not to have many facts in them."

Stephen Ansolabehere, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believes politicians could just as easily provide valuable information to voters with a more positive message.

"Part of it is that people are not using positive ads as effectively as they should," he said. "They're saying here's my family, here's my dog."

Indeed, Michael Steele, Maryland's Republican Senate candidates, has been running ads picturing him with a puppy, warning that the "Washington crowd" will soon be running negative ads against him. Sure enough, on Tuesday the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released an ad highlighting a joint appearance between Steele and President Bush. "Michael Steele, he likes puppies. But he loves George Bush."

Party committees are frequent vehicles for negative ads, deploying their research staffs to comb through voting records and past histories for material to feature. Besides the Steele ad, the DSCC also unleashed ads this week against Republican Sens. Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island and Jim Talent in Missouri and Republican Senate candidate Bob Corker in Tennessee.

The anti-Chafee ad cites his votes against Democratic amendments over the past three years that would have spent more money on port security. The ad against Talent cites his contributions from donors aligned to or employed by the pharmaceutical industry. The Corker ad cites new reports about the arrest of four illegal immigrants employed by a subcontractor who worked for Corker's construction company 18 years ago.

The Republican National Committee has been running negative ads against Rep. Sherrod Brown, the Democratic Senate candidate in Ohio and against Rep. Harold Ford, Corker's Democratic opponent in Tennessee. This week the RNC reported spending $201,000 on a new ad purchase against Brown in Ohio. Last week it reported a $308,000 purchase of television time against Ford.

The goal of such ads, campaign strategists and some experts say, is to mobilize base voters and increase turnout for their candidates. But some researchers say it also depresses turnout by independent voters.

"True independents, people who are not engaged in politics to begin with, they need to be told why they should vote," Ansolabehere said. "What the ads tend to do, for Democrats and Republicans, is reinforce why the Democrats like their party and why Republicans like their party. For independents it reinforces why they really don't like politics."

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