updated 11/1/2006 9:49:56 AM ET 2006-11-01T14:49:56

Press one if you think they're dirty tricks. Press two if you think prerecorded telephone messages are devastatingly effective, especially during the final days of a close campaign.

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In at least 53 competitive House races, the National Republican Campaign Committee has launched hundreds of thousands of automated telephone calls, known as "robo calls."

Such calls have sparked a handful of complaints to the FCC and underscore the usefulness of the inexpensive - and sometimes overwhelming - political tool.

Targeted calls are key
"As much as people complain about getting automated calls and saying they don't work, every politician is doing them," said Jerry Dorchuck, whose Pennsylvania-based Political Marketing International will make about 200,000 such phone calls each hour for mostly Democratic candidates. "Targeted calls play a key in very close races."

They can single out single women, absentee voters, independents and party faithful with tailored messages, but they also can frustrate voters. Sometimes, the latter is their goal.

Bruce Jacobson, a software engineer from Ardmore, Pa., received three prerecorded messages in four hours. Each began, "Hello, I'm calling with information about Lois Murphy," the Democrat running against two-term incumbent Rep. Jim Gerlach in the Philadelphia-area district.

"Basically, they go on to slam Lois," said Jacobson, who has filed a complaint with the FCC because the source of the call isn't immediately known.

FCC rules say all prerecorded messages must "at the beginning of the message, state clearly the identity of the business, individual, or other entity that is responsible for initiating the call." During or after the message, they must give the telephone number of the caller.

Illegal or not?
"The way they're sent is deceptive. The number of calls is harassing. The way her stances are presented in these stories is deliberately misleading and deceptive," said Karlyn Messinger, another Murphy supporter from Penn Valley, Pa., who filed a complaint with the FCC.

NRCC spokesman Ed Patru denied any illegal intent.

"All of our political calls are in compliance with the law," Patru said.

Not so, said the Democrats.

"They are violating the regulations that were set up," said Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who said the DCCC employed one robocall this cycle and paid $500 for it.

"I think the real point here is that the Republicans are using a desperate campaign tactic that is misleading, at worst violating the law and at best is a page out of Karl Rove's playbook," Psaki said. "They clearly are attempting to mislead voters."

Turning off the base
Democrats argued that that's the strategy.

"Because they are getting so many, they are only listening to the first part of the message," said Amy Bonitatibus, a Murphy spokeswoman. "They're hoping to turn off our base. ... These are pretty much dirty tricks by the Republican Party."

The NRCC, the GOP campaign arm for House candidates, has spent $2.1 million on such automated calls nationwide. In Illinois, at least three versions of a phone message target Tammy Duckworth, the Democrat in a tight Chicago-area race, and her positions on taxes, Social Security and immigrants.

"Illinois families will be footing the bill for illegal immigrants who get government benefits," the voice says in one.

Misleading calls
In Connecticut's hotly contested 4th Congressional District, incumbent Republican Rep. Christopher Shays and Democrat Diane Farrell both said they are victims of misleading and annoying robocall campaigns. Shays, a 10-term congressman, said he has survived more than 20 robocall campaigns, including one that tried to link his stance on stem-cell research to that of religious extremists.

"These calls are at best misleading, and often blatantly wrong," Shays wrote in a letter to several newspaper publishers this summer.

Farrell spokeswoman Jan Ellen Spiegel said Tuesday the campaign has been a victim of "constant pummeling," including robocalls that begin with a recorded voice saying, "I'd like to talk with you about Diane Farrell." It's the same tactic employed in Murphy's district and elsewhere.

In North Carolina's 11th Congressional District, Republicans are going after challenger Heath Shuler, whose campaign said the calls are coming as late as 2:30 a.m.

"Calling people up, making people think it's me when it's actually them - it's acts of desperation. ... I think it's part of the corruption in Washington," Shuler said.

That campaign funded two robocalls during the primary but isn't looking to use any more.

"You can't combat a bad robocall message with another robocall message," said Shuler spokesman Andrew Whalen.

Outside involvement
It's not just the campaign committees. Outside groups also are joining the fracas. Common Sense, a nonprofit group based in Ohio, has expanded to four other states to help conservative candidates this cycle.

"We can ask the voter or the respondent questions about things that are important to them and then provide information to them based on the things they think are important," said Common Sense's Zeke Swift, who calls the efforts "custom campaigning."

During one call in Maryland, an automated voice asked questions that clearly favor Republican Michael Steele's bid for Senate.

It's not just Republicans. After Rep. Mark Foley resigned his seat amid the House page scandal, the progressive American Family Voices launched robocalls in 50 districts.

"Congressional Republican leaders, including Speaker Dennis Hastert, covered up for a child sexual predator. ... The answer is arrests, resignations and a new congressional leadership," the call told voters.

That Florida district, once a safe Republican seat, is now in play.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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