Going on the offensive

While harsh advertisements and negative attacks are a staple of presidential campaigns, Sen. John McCain has drawn an avalanche of criticism from Democrats, independent groups and even some Republicans for regularly stretching the truth in attacking Sen. Barack Obama's record and positions.

Obama has also been accused of distortions, but last week McCain found himself under fire for a pair of headline-grabbing attacks. First the McCain campaign twisted Obama's words to suggest that he had compared Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee, to a pig after Obama said, in questioning McCain's claim to be the change agent in the race, “You can put lipstick on a pig; it's still a pig.” (McCain once used the same expression to describe Sen. Hillary Clinton's health plan.)

Then he falsely claimed that Obama supported “comprehensive sex ed” for kindergartners (he supported teaching them to be alert for inappropriate advances from adults).

Those attacks followed weeks in which McCain repeatedly, and incorrectly, asserted that Obama would raise taxes on the middle class, even though analysts say he would cut taxes on the middle class more than McCain would. He also misrepresented Obama's positions on energy and health care.

A McCain advertisement called “Fact Check” was itself found to be “less than honest” by, a nonpartisan group. The group complained that the McCain campaign had cited its work debunking various Internet rumors about Palin and implied in the advertisement that the rumors had originated with Obama.

In an interview Friday on the NY1 cable news channel, a McCain supporter, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, called ridiculous the implication that Obama's “lipstick on a pig” comment was a reference to Palin, whom he also defended as coming under unfair attack.

“The last month, for sure, I think the predominance of liberty taken with truth and the facts has been more McCain than Obama,” said Don Sipple, a Republican advertising strategist.

A McCain spokesman, Brian Rogers, said the campaign had evidence for all its claims. “We stand fully by everything that's in our ads,” Rogers said, “and everything that we've been saying we provide detailed backup for – everything, and if you and the Obama campaign want to disagree, that's your call.”

“They just keep stirring the pot, and I think the McCain folks realize if they can get this thing down in the mud, drag Obama into the mud, that's where they have the best advantage to win,” said Matthew Dowd, who worked with many top McCain campaign advisers when he was President Bush's chief strategist in the 2004 campaign, but who has since had a falling out with the White House. “If they stay up at 10,000 feet, they don't.”

Indeed, for all the criticism, the offensive seems to be having an impact. It has been widely credited by strategists in both parties with putting Obama on the defensive since it began earlier this summer.