Obama, Romney campaigns are walking fine line between negative and nasty ads

The 2012 race for the White House has been dominated by negative ads. With 99 days to go, the only question is how nasty it will become.

Both candidates have made no bones about the fact they’re going to attack one another, and each side already has been accused of making distorting statements and telling out-and-out lies.

At the same time, President Obama and Mitt Romney have suggested there’s a limit to the mud they’ll throw.

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Both have vowed to avoid highly personalized attacks. Romney’s Mormon religion and Obama’s history with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright have so far been off limits.

Yet in an election expected to come down to a handful of swing states, some think it will be harder and harder for the two sides to leave ammunition on the table as the race intensifies in the fall.

“It’s like an arms race between two countries where if one side is doing more than the other, then the other side feels like it needs to catch up because the stakes are so high,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean.

Already, there have been hints about how dirty it could become as pressure intensifies.

Obama’s attacks on Romney’s private equity background at Bain Capital have focused on charges of outsourcing, but deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter went a step further when she floated the idea that the Republican may have committed a felony by misrepresenting his role at his old firm.

A week later, Romney advisers and surrogates began hitting the president for his ties to Tony Rezko, a Chicago-area political operative who was convicted of demanding political kickbacks. The Romney allies said they raised Rezko as an issue because of Cutter’s attack.

Romney hasn’t attacked Obama over Wright, and the president’s team hasn’t touched Mormonism or stories about Romney’s alleged bullying of a gay student during his high school years.

But it’s easy to see how either campaign could cross the line in a tight election.

An unnamed Romney adviser has reportedly said the campaign could put the president’s admitted drug use onto the table as a legitimate issue.

And the two candidates have been toeing the line on what is conventionally considered out of bounds.

Throughout the month, Romney has repeatedly referred to the president’s economic philosophy as “foreign” — which is seen by some as a nod to the birther controversy. And while Obama never directly addresses Romney’s faith, he’ll poke fun at Romney for using words like “marvelous” to depict him as outside the cultural mainstream.

The Democratic National Committee released a pair of Web ads mocking the Romneys’ multi-million dollar dressage horse, Rafalca — which Ann Romney uses for her treatment of multiple sclerosis. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) noted in an interview that Romney’s family “came from a polygamy commune in Mexico.”

On the other side, the Romney campaign earned criticism last week when an unnamed adviser suggested to a British newspaper that the Republican candidate could better relate to British allies because of a “shared Anglo-Saxon heritage.”

Romney denounced that report as not coming from the campaign, but Team Romney had already flirted with the messaging.

Earlier this month, former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu (R), during a Romney campaign call, suggested the president needed to “learn how to be an American.”

In each case, apologies were issued and the campaigns distanced themselves from the attacks. But they suggest the use of other tactics can’t be ruled out, particularly given the enhanced role of super-PACs in this cycle.

On the Republican side, there’s also a sense that 2008 candidate Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) might have erred in putting some issues aside. McCain ruled out attacks on Wright, the pastor who married the Obamas.

Earlier this year, a proposal prepared for a super-PAC funded by Chicago Cubs owner Joe Ricketts suggested targeting the president’s ties to Wright, creating huge waves on the campaign trail. Romney denounced the plan before it was put into action, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be unearthed.

More attacks on Romney’s personal finances, which Democrats believe have been effective, could move into increasingly personal areas.

“Over time, you’re going to see even more new questions raised by us about how Romney made that money, where it has gone, and if he’s been entirely ethical with his tax responsibilities,” said one Democratic source.

The candidates have little control over what super-PACs unaffiliated with the campaigns will do in the fall. 

Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons said Al Gore’s campaign in 2000 lost an entire week to a controversial NAACP ad that invoked the racially-charged murder of James Byrd, a black man in Texas killed when he was chained to, and dragged from, a pickup truck.

As governor of Texas, George W. Bush had refused to support hate-crime legislation, and the commercial used black-and-white imagery of a truck dragging a chain to hammer the Republican nominee over the incident.

“Super-PACs and other groups absolutely have the ability to get the campaigns spun off and talking or responding to [side issues] instead of the issues the campaign thought was important,” said Simmons, who worked on Gore’s campaign.

And that was before outside groups could raise and spend serious amounts of money.

Candidates acknowledge the risk of allowing their candidacies to be consumed by negative advertisements. President Obama, following polling that showed voters increasingly believe he is running a negative campaign, released a set of three new television commercials last week. Each put forward a positive message about his campaign.

And Romney, asked about the increasingly negative tenor of the campaign during an interview Friday with NBC, looked to pivot away from that label.

“I can tell you what we’re focused on is not personal attacks, but instead we’re focusing on policy differences and where we think the president may have gone wrong, where we think we can do better,” Romney said.