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Canary on the campaign trail

The initiation of negative campaigning is a sort of canary on the campaign trail: When it sings, the campaign has some problems.

Most candidates, most of the time, prefer to campaign positively, to talk about their wonderful selves and their wonderful plans. They tend to turn negative, most of the time, when they find that going positive isn’t enough to clinch the deal. Going negative can (does not always) work; they wouldn’t do it if iit didn’t. From this you can draw some conclusions. When you see a campaign heading down the slash and burn highway early on, it’s probably one that needs to close a big gap. A late start on going negative can mean the campaign is close but not quite making the sale, or a little ahead but watching the other guy catch up. It’s a sign of a campaign scrambling. And add a layer of concern to that if someone other than the candidate is doing the deed – that suggests concerned parties are worried the candidate can’t afford to be associated with it.

In Oregon, voters watched as the trailing Ron Saxton (Republican) campaign for governor unleashed a mass of negative ads aimed at Democratic Governor Ted Kulongoski, who was running warm-n-fuzzies on his own behalf. Then, as polls showed the race closing, Kulongoski started firing back at Saxton.

In Idaho, the 1st district congressional race (in the general election, not the primary) has been mostly positive, surprisingly so. But it made some sense. The Bill Sali Republican campaign seemed, a while back, to conclude that voters would simply come home to the Republican candidates by election day; and the Larry Grant Democratic campaign seemed to sense gradual building which might take them over the top.

That’s gradually changing. From highly cordial initial debates and campaign materials, the heat is starting to pour on, and coming more from Sali than from Grant. There’s a distinct change in tone since the last Majority Watch poll showing Sali ahead, but only by 49-43, hardly confidence-inspiring.

Thursday’s Nampa candidate forum saw Grant take after Sali for misstating his position on immigration, and ask him to correct it. Sali declined, with this quote: “politics is a contact sport.” (Even real contact sports do have rules.) At almost the same time came reports of massive robocalls, not from Sali’s campaign but from the Republican National Campaign Committee. The Grant campaign said there are two message, one starting, “When you go to the polls on Nov. 7 you’ll see the name ‘Larry Grant’ on the ballot. Let me tell you a little about Larry Grant…”; and the other, “Larry Grant needs a lesson in Economics 101…”

The tone is changing. That suggests a level of concern absent earlier.

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