DAVENPORT, IA — Iowa residents flipping their TV channels this season aren't finding a whole lot of Christmas cheer. A barrage of negative campaign ads is flooding the airwaves, with ghoulish images of Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi crowding Santa and doomsday music drowning out holiday song.
Mitt Romney is likened to "big-government liberals." Newt Gingrich is castigated for his "baggage." The still-volatile Republican presidential field means Iowans have two more weeks of this before the leadoff caucuses Jan. 3.
The onslaught of scalding ads and messages landing in voters' mailboxes, prompted in part by a Supreme Court decision last year that helped open the floodgates, has made the race for the 2012 GOP nomination among the most negative the state has ever seen. The campaign air war, slow to start at first, has intensified as the caucuses loom closer — leaving observers to puzzle over its recent dark turn.
"The ads are more negative than they were in 2007," said Dianne Bystrom, a political communications professor at Iowa State University.
"In part it's the mood of the country, which has certainly darkened in the last 4 years," Bystrom said. "Some of the Republicans haven't spent a lot of time in the state, so they're communicating on television. And there's lots of third party ads this time that have really changed the dynamic."
That means Rick Perry is slamming Mitt Romney for supporting an individual health care mandate that formed the basis of President Obama's health care law. Ron Paul is complaining about "smooth-talking politicians" over video images of Gingrich, Romney and Obama. And a pro-Romney independent group, Restore Our Future, has unleashed a multimillion-dollar assault on Gingrich, effectively doing the former Massachusetts governor's dirty work while letting him float safely above the fray.
"Newt Gingrich has more baggage than the airlines," the group's new ad says, showing Gingrich pairing with Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, to fight climate change.
While attack ads are often effective, they can muddy the instigator as much as they wound the target. That's particularly true in a multicandidate field, where an attack on one candidate from another can actually benefit a third.
Such was the case in 2004, when Democrats Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt battled each other hard in Iowa. Another rival, John Kerry, took advantage of the fray and went on to win the caucuses that year.
As an officially independent group, Restore Our Future bears no mention of Romney's name — protecting him to some degree from blowback. It is made up of former Romney advisers.
Gingrich, for his part, isn't ready to give Romney a pass. He addressed the risk to Romney at a campaign event in Iowa on Monday when asked about the impact of the group's ads.
"It reflects badly on other Republicans that they haven't got anything positive to say for themselves and they have to rely on their consultants trying to tear down a fellow Republican and they are in effect doing Barack Obama's work," Gingrich said. "I think the average Republican's going to be very unhappy with Republicans whose entire campaign is negative."
To be sure, not every candidate is blistering the airwaves.
Gingrich, for his part, is trying to make good on a campaign promise to stay positive in ads even though he's swiped indirectly at Romney. The former House speaker and his wife, Callista, are expected to appear in a campaign Christmas commercial in Iowa later this week.
Cash-strapped hopefuls Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum are focusing their limited resources on retail campaigning. Jon Huntsman has avoided Iowa in order to go all out n New Hampshire, which hosts the nation's first primary Jan. 10. Our Destiny, a super PAC supporting the former Utah governor, has run positive ads there for him.
By far the biggest jolt to the advertising landscape this time is the emergence of super PACs — independent groups that can raise and spend unlimited money to support or attack a candidate.
Last year's landmark Supreme Court ruling easing campaign spending restrictions on corporations has brought forth a proliferation of such groups in Iowa. Restore Our Future, a super PAC, has been by far the most prolific, devoting its resources to painting Gingrich as a greedy, unethical hypocrite.
Make Us Great Again, a super PAC backing Perry, has also spent heavily on ads. Groups supporting Gingrich and Santorum have just started to go on the air.
Marty Kaplan, a political communications expert at the University of Southern California, said the negative attacks from both candidates and outside groups would all but certainly continue past Iowa.
"Negative ads work," Kaplan said. "They are compelling narratives with villains and twists that evoke emotion, and they do everything that Hollywood wants to happen to an audience."
Associated Press writers Tom Beaumont and Shannon McCaffrey in Iowa and Jack Gillum in Washington contributed to this story.
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