By Michael Scherer Thursday, Sep. 25, 2008
The McCain-Palin "Sex Education for Kids" television ad, left, and the Obama-Biden "Bridge to Nowhere" ad
Until he got that fax at the Synagogue, Ralph Cohen thought he knew where Barack Obama stood on Israel. The word around Century Village, a reliably liberal Florida retirement community in Pembroke Pines, was that Obama strongly supported the Jewish state. But the Sept. 23 anonymous document alleged something else: Obama had "surrounded himself with some of the most anti-Semitic friends and anti-Israel advisers."Cohen did not know what to think. "I'm really confused because this is not the first time I have heard this rumor," he said that afternoon. "Obama doesn't really speak much about supporting Israel."
Welcome to the late-stage-combat portion of the campaign to lead the free world. Tough attacks, misinformation and anonymous smears are multiplying as both campaigns surrender some control of the conversation to outside groups and dirty tricksters with deep pockets and technological know-how. Legitimate interest groups, high-powered unions and wealthy individuals plan to spend millions on television advertisements, direct mail and computer-generated phone calls over the coming weeks, almost all of them negative. These efforts will be supplemented by a lot of stuff that is even worse, like the faceless fax blast Cohen received.
Outside groups spent more than $550 million on the presidential election in 2004, a total that could be eclipsed this time around, though the money has become even harder to track. That's because many of the donors funding guerrilla campaigns absent any coordination with the candidates have opted to avoid so-called 527 groups, which require full disclosure of donors. Instead, they are using more established nonprofits, like 501(c)(4)s, to find loopholes in the law. "It brings everything off the books," explains Will Evans, who is tracking outside spending at the Center for Investigative Reporting. "It takes away the disclosure that used to happen." The partisan war has further escalated because of technological shifts that have made communicating en masse over the Internet all but free. Viral e-mail messages are spamming inboxes daily, with rumors and innuendo that range from the credible to the outrageously false, with no ready way for voters to distinguish between the two.
Both sides have shown an affinity for such dark arts. For months, the AFL-CIO and its affiliates have been blanketing swing states with direct mail promoting Obama and attacking McCain for his "$520 Italian loafers." A union group called Wake Up Wal-Mart is running ads in swing states condemning McCain's "Bush-style corporate tax breaks," while the liberal group Catholics United has an ad saying McCain does not "defend all human life" because, among other issues, he supported the war in Iraq.
McCain's allies are in on the game too. The National Rifle Association plans tens of millions of direct-mail pieces attacking Obama as being a threat to hunters, and has television ads already running in Colorado and New Mexico, where voters can cast their ballots early. An outfit known as BornAliveTruth.org has been advertising in swing states with the misleading claim that Obama supports the death of fetuses born after failed abortions. (Obama opposed an Illinois senate bill he said could have jeopardized other abortion statutes; at the time, Illinois law required doctors to save the lives of all viable fetuses after birth.) In Michigan, a political committee called Freedom's Defense Fund has been running television spots that highlight Obama's ties to the controversial pastor Jeremiah Wright. The Republican Jewish Coalition, a conservative pro-Israel group, has been poll-testing anti-Obama messages in preparation for a large campaign of its own. "We are prepared to spend significantly more than we have in the past," says Matt Brooks, its executive director.
The evidence deployed in these campaigns can be dizzyingly convoluted. One newspaper ad by Brooks' group cites the fact that Obama's foreign policy views have been praised by Pat Buchanan, a Republican and a longtime critic of American policy toward Israel. At the same time, the liberal group MoveOn.org has been sending around e-mails with the apparently false claim that Sarah Palin, McCain's running mate, supported Buchanan in the 2000 election. (She wore a Buchanan button when he visited Alaska but says she never backed him.) All the money and outside effort has a single goal: reaching voters where the candidates have not. "This election is going to be decided by the grass roots," explains Phil Burress, a social conservative from Ohio who is helping to organize pastors and distribute church voter guides. "It's not going to be decided by the most media buys."
Voters like Cohen, who serves as president of the Century Pines Jewish Center, are left to sort through the information on their own. When he received the fax casting doubt on Obama's support of Israel, he contacted Sophie Bock, who runs his condo community's local Democratic club. She told him it was just dirty tricks and pointed to Obama's support among a number of pro-Israel leaders. Then she called her Congresswoman's office to spread the word about the nasty messages being sent to the temple. "They said it's just electioneering," she explained. And it has another five weeks to run.
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