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Iowa awash in negative campaign ads

By Robin Abcarian and Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times –

DES MOINES, Iowa — With no snow on the ground in this unseasonably warm state, the only blizzard Iowans are facing is the daily onslaught of negative political ads as they turn on their televisions, tune in their radios or visit their mailboxes. And they aren’t safe when they pick up the phone or fire up their Internet connections either.

“Oh goodness,” said Jill Jepsen, 57, a retired department store employee who lives in Oskaloosa and supports former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. “I just don’t listen to it. I can’t listen to it. It makes me sick.”

But others are tuning in. And the primary victim is Gingrich, who became the whipping boy of the Republican presidential field as soon as he surged to the front of the pack last month. Gingrich’s considerably long record and messy personal life have made him a juicy target. Now, his commanding lead has shrunk and he is clumped at the top of the polls with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.

This year, traditional candidate-made ads (“I’m so and so, and I approved this message”) have been buried under a barrage from independent “super PACs,” created last year after a U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed them. The sheer amount of political advertising is expected to reach record levels because super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money.

Some think the ads have gotten not only more plentiful but also more brutal, although going negative on an opponent on the eve of the first presidential nomination voting is as Iowan as the state fair’s pork chop on a stick.

“Everyone can deplore negative advertising, but in pure Machiavellian end-justifies-the-means sense, they work,” said Iowa political science professor Dennis Goldford.

The super PACs, which raise money from corporations, unions and individuals, are often run by former campaign staffers but are not permitted to coordinate with the campaigns.

In one 30-minute period Wednesday evening, it was possible to see half a dozen political spots — either by candidates or super PACS — mostly negative. An ad for Paul accused Gingrich of “serial hypocrisy,” and an ad by Texas Gov. Rick Perry claimed Gingrich “got rich” through ties to Freddie Mac and dismissed both Gingrich and Romney as political insiders.

Direct mail pieces attack Gingrich for a TV spot he made about global warming with former Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In one piece by Romney’s allies, Santa Claus holds “Barack Obama’s Christmas list” with only one wish: “Newt Gingrich as the Republican nominee for 2012. Please Santa!”

The devastating, well-funded attacks on Gingrich have also unleashed a war of words among the candidates.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets website, which tracks political spending, the pro-Romney group Restore Our Future has spent $2.5 million attacking Gingrich, $1.4 million of it in the last week.

That makes Gingrich by far the most besieged candidate of the 2012 presidential cycle. Even President Obama has generated only $1.28 million in spending on negative ads, though far more will come in the general election. One ad analysis company, Kantar Media, said that Iowa airwaves had been clogged with more than 1,200 anti-Gingrich messages in the last several weeks.

The campaign’s relatively late start in Iowa is at least partly responsible for the current spate of attacks on Gingrich. When he surged into the lead last month, there was so little time left before the voting on Jan. 3 that rival campaigns went immediately to the political equivalent of Defcon 1.

“People had to get tough or lose,” said Iowa Republican operative Steve Grubbs, who ran Herman Cain’s campaign in the state until Cain dropped out.

By the time the attacks on Gingrich were conceived, made and unleashed, his opponents “had already accomplished the job,” Grubbs said. “Now it’s overkill.”

In a two-day swing through Iowa this week, Gingrich called on Romney to disavow the Restore Our Future ads. When Romney told MSNBC that he had no control over the super PAC, Gingrich called the statement “palpably misleading, clearly false and politics in its worst form.”

He repeatedly knocked his opponents for breaking Ronald Reagan’s “11th commandment” not to speak ill of fellow Republicans, and he said the ultimate beneficiary of the attacks was Obama. (Gingrich has lashed out at opponents in interviews, but not in his ads.)

On Wednesday in New Hampshire, Romney refused to disavow the negative messages being churned out on his behalf. The rough-and-tumble nature of the race, he said, is toughening up candidates for the general election.

Gingrich’s strategy of complaining to the media and airing only positive ads makes no sense to some.

“You have to respond to these things,” said Kenneth Goldstein, president of Kantar’s Campaign Media Analysis Group. “Complaining about negative advertising tends to not be a great strategy. There are two ways to deal with negative attacks: say that’s absolutely not true … or say yeah, but you’re awful too.”

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