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Deceptive campaign ads hint at year of mudslinging

Perry, Romney spots take Obama out of context; ‘low bar’ is set, critics say

A screen grab from a recent attack ad on President Obama from the Rick Perry campaign.

A screen grab from a recent attack ad on President Obama from the Rick Perry campaign.

With nearly a year until the election, evidence is mounting that the presidential race is going to feature a rough, negative, and confusing advertising onslaught.

Rick Perry and Mitt Romney have each aired ads that take President Obama’s words out of context, drawing howls of protest from Democrats but no apologies from the Republicans’ campaigns.

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Romney aides even said they were proud of the reaction and suggested that the ad was deliberately misleading to garner attention.

Voter beware: This could be just a taste of things to come.

The proliferation of SuperPACs closely aligned with the candidates, the intense partisan divide in Washington, and finger-pointing about the poor economy promise to make this an especially negative election season, with deception the rule, analysts say.

“If this is the opening salvo, I fear what the battle lines will look like,’’ said Glenn Totten, a Democratic media strategist. “At this stage of the game, it seems to be a relatively low bar that we’re setting here.’’

Some have predicted that Obama will have to be just as ruthless as his rivals to overcome voter anger over the limping economy and disappointment in the message of hope and change that carried him into the White House in 2008.

‘The fact that you could completely undercut somebody’s meaning in order to serve your own ends is, frankly, in my mind, borderline criminality.’

Glenn Totten Democratic media strategist
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“Both campaigns will go right up to the edge and get away with as much as they can,’’ said Rick Reed, a Republican media strategist who worked on Romney’s 1994 US Senate campaign.

“That said, I think in this environment you have to be careful,’’ Reed said. “People are tired of gratuitous hits. With all this anxiety, people want solutions and not all the talk. It can’t be all negative.’’

American campaigns, let alone political ads, have never been known for high-minded explorations of the issues. Candidates inevitably complain that the ads, with their grainy images and ominous voice-overs, traffic in outright falsehoods, smears, and misquotations.

But the spread of cheaply produced Web ads, and SuperPACs backed by political operatives, corporations and unions have made it even harder for voters to dig the truth out of the dirt.

The candidates haven’t exactly helped, either.

Romney’s ad, his first of the campaign, shows a clip of Obama saying, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.’’ What the ad fails to mention is that the clip is from Obama in 2008, quoting an aide to his GOP rival, John McCain.

“The fact that you could completely undercut somebody’s meaning in order to serve your own ends is, frankly, in my mind, borderline criminality,’’ Totten said. “The problem is there is no one there to be the official referee. There is no umpire in the game.’’

ThinkProgress, a liberal blog, produced a video showing how Romney’s technique could be used against him. It features clips of Romney quoting his rivals, edited to make it appear as though he made the comments himself.

“We should just raise everybody’s taxes,’’ Romney declares in one snippet. “America’s just another nation with a flag,’’ he says in another.

The Democratic National Committee said Romney’s ad “continues a pattern of dishonesty and a lack of credibility on issues that matter to the American people.’’

Romney aides said they were pleased with the response.

“It’s all deliberate. It was all very intentional,’’ Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser, said last week. “We want to engage him on the subject he wants to avoid, which is his failure to create jobs and get this economy moving again.’’

“They should probably order some more defibrillators for the Obama reelection committee, because their reaction was quite hysterical,’’ he added. “But that was the point.’’

The Romney campaign included a more complete context for the quote in a press release announcing the ad, but most voters will only see the ad. Fehrnstrom said it was the job of the media, not the campaign, to provide the full context.

“You guys have it,’’ he said. “If you do your job, [voters] will learn about it.’’

Perry’s ad, titled “Lazy,’’ shows Obama saying, “We’ve been a little bit lazy over the last couple of decades,’’ and then Perry saying, “Can you believe that? That’s what our president thinks is wrong with America? That Americans are lazy? That’s pathetic. It’s time to clean house in Washington.’’

The full quote from Obama makes clear he wasn’t calling Americans in general lazy but was trying to argue that the United States has been lax in its efforts to attract businesses from overseas.

“We’ve been a little bit lazy I think over the last couple of decades,’’ Obama said at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Hawaii on Nov. 12. “We’ve kind of taken for granted - ‘Well, people would want to come here’ - and we aren’t out there hungry, selling America and trying to attract new businesses into America.’’

Perry’s campaign defended the spot.

“We certainly believe it embodies President Obama’s true feelings, and his interest in blaming people outside of his administration and outside of Washington for the economic morass the country is in,” said Ray Sullivan, a Perry spokesman.

Political observers said Romney and Perry are striking early because they know the Obama campaign has an arsenal of their own shifting statements or flubs that could be turned into attack ads.

Essentially, Perry and Romney are telling Obama: “We’ve said really dumb things; if you come after us with them, this is what you’ll get,’’ said Linda Fowler, a Dartmouth College political scientist who called the ads “amateurish.’’

“One would think, with all the money they’re spending on the ads, they could come up with quotes to use against the president that would not be so easily shot down,’’ she said.

In an indication of the aggressive tack Obama could take, Priorities USA - a SuperPAC formed by Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney, two former White House aides - released a Web ad earlier this month that slams Romney as an insensitive Wall Street profiteer.

Amid stock images of a corporate jet and a hand stuffing cash into a suit pocket, the ad accuses the former Massachusetts governor of wanting to privatize Social Security, a distortion of his position.

While Romney has expressed support for allowing younger workers to voluntarily invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in private accounts, his formal platform does not include that plan and instead proposes raising the eligibility age and slowing the growth in benefits for wealthier retirees.

News organizations have responded to the growth of negative ads with fact-checking columns and websites.

Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post fact-checker, called the Priorities USA ad “broadly misleading.’’

Some strategists have said that negative ads are intended to drive down overall voter turnout, thereby strengthening the hand of campaigns that can turn out their diehard supporters.

Reed said both parties need to be careful not to repel voters.

“I do question the efficacy of the approach these days,’’ he said. “That’s why I’m hoping, at least in Mitt’s case, there will be a little more vision and a little more optimism than we’ve seen.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.
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