What's the difference between "negative campaigning" and merely "examining the public record"?

Statements by Democrat Gunn McKay and Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, suggest that if their opponent says something bad about them, that's negative campaigning.But if they say something bad about their opponent, that's either responding to their opponent's negative campaign or just looking at his record.

In the past week, the two men running for the 1st District congressional seat have been slinging mud at each other in a radio ad battle over who is really doing the negative campaigning and who started it.

The battle likely has roots in other campaigns. Hansen unseated McKay from Congress in 1980 and defeated his comeback attempt in 1986.

Hansen complained after the 1986 campaign that McKay called him "mean-spirited," and said that prevented him from working effectively with the Democratic majority in Congress. McKay complained about cheap shots at his relationship to former LDS Church President David O. McKay.

Both mentioned those past complaints in interviews at the beginning of this year's campaign. As the comments trickled into print, their opponents or staffs made claims of negative campaigning.

Then last week, McKay started running a radio ad attacking Hansen for missing a vote on a catastrophic-illness health care bill for senior citizens. The ad said Father's Day that week reminded residents of the need to care for the elderly, but charged that Hansen "didn't even care enough to show up" to vote on the important bill.

At a press conference announcing that ad, McKay correctly predicted, "Undoubtedly my opponent will say we are running a negative campaign. He already has. But Jim always says we are running a negative campaign. This just isn't true." He then mentioned that Hansen had taken shots at McKay's age - which he said was out of line especially since Hansen backed the oldest presidential candidate ever - Ronald Reagan.

McKay's campaign manager, Russell Clark, said McKay's comments were just looking at the record or defending himself against Hansen's negative claims.

Hansen said it was negative campaigning and almost immediately launched a series of his own radio ads attacking McKay. Those ads said McKay's ads were negative campaigning - of which Utahns disapprove - and questioned whether McKay was running them to hide something in his own record.

Peter Jenks, Hansen's campaign manager, said he thinks it is "ludicrous for Gunn to attack Jim for missing a vote when Jim has a better voting record than McKay did" in 1980. Jenks said Hansen has voted 91 percent of the time this year, but McKay only voted 84 percent of the time in 1980.

Hansen's ad prompted McKay to start another series of ads Thursday attacking Hansen for not apologizing for missing the vote nor explaining where he was during it. The ad says Hansen was earning money by giving a speech in Las Vegas.

David Dixon, press secretary for McKay, said that ad was justified to answer inaccurate information in Hansen's ad - such as that McKay was attacking Hansen's attendance record. Both camps say they will avoid negative campaigning in the future - just as they say they personally have done all along.

McKay has said, "Utahns don't like negative campaigns, and I have never run a negative campaign. Whenever we give the voters an opportunity to examine the record, Jim says we're out of line. Shouldn't the voters have the chance to know where both candidates stand?"

He added, "In this campaign, we are going to focus on leadership and the issues. In this campaign, we are going to take an aggressive look at my opponent's record. And in this campaign, we are going to ask the voters: `What has Jim Hansen done for you?' "

Jenks said Hansen's ads that attacked McKay ran only three days and were replaced Wednesday by ads stressing Hansen's accomplishments and who is better for the district and America. "They take a very high road."

When asked if Hansen's charge that McKay was guilty of negative campaigning was itself a form a negative campaigning, Jenks said, "No, it was simply calling attention to Gunn's ad and to question whether he is trying to avoid his record." In other words, it was again merely "examining the record."