In mid-February, Senator Hillary Clinton's (D-N.Y.) campaign launched what political pundits widely described as its first negative attack ad against Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.). The TV spot, which ran in Wisconsin in the days leading up to Obama's 17-percentage-point win in the Feb. 20 primary, needled him for choosing not to debate Clinton in the Badger State because he would "prefer to give speeches than have to answer questions." The ad also contended that Obama's proposed health-care plan would be too expensive.
A zinger it was not—and that tells us a lot about the state of political advertising in 2008. Sure, the campaign season could go "Swift Boat" any minute, especially once the general election begins in earnest. But for now the candidates are caught between dueling advisers: campaign vets in both parties telling them that going negative works and those warning them that doing so risks a boomerang effect, turning off voters looking for change. Clinton on Feb. 21 made a point of saying she was honored to be on the same stage as Obama; by the following weekend, however, she was ridiculing his campaign of hope from the Ohio stump. "There are new rules for going negative," says veteran Republican strategist Ed Rogers. "And we are finding out what they are as we go along."