WASHINGTON – This just in: President Bush is a Hitlerian war criminal, his supporters goose-stepping Nazis. John Kerry is a traitorous liar. Dick Cheney believes the end of America is at hand. And President Clinton is responsible for those planes flying into the World Trade Center.

Welcome to America’s 2004 electoral landscape, at least as it’s seen through the fun house mirrors of political advertising. A misfired attempt at campaign reform, coupled with the anything-goes ethos of the Internet, has resulted in some of the most vicious presidential campaign ads in U.S. history.

“I’ve been around politics a long time, and I’ve never seen anything as nasty and as vicious as I have this year,” says Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist.

Hardball ads have been around since mass-media political advertising first caught on during television’s infancy in 1952. But many political analysts believe 2004 is in a class by itself. They cite as evidence:

• The anti-Bush group MoveOn.org posted an ad on its Web site that used film of Adolf Hitler ranting in German, with subtitles “translating” his words into a fictitious quote by Bush. (“God told me to strike at al-Qaida …”) When Republicans bitterly complained, MoveOn.org took the ad down – but promptly put up another one with more Hitler footage under the caption: WHAT WERE WAR CRIMES IN 1945 IS FOREIGN POLICY IN 2003.

• A group of Vietnam veterans calling themselves Swift Boat Veterans for Truth managed to dominate the political headlines throughout the entire month of August with a series of TV ads impugning Kerry’s Vietnam war record. In just 30 seconds, one ad used the words lied or lying four times, the phrase not been honest twice, betrayed twice, and dishonored and cannot be trusted once apiece.

• The pro-Republican organization Citizens United made a TV spot featuring footage of various al-Qaida terrorist attacks staged during Clinton’s presidency, then asked rhetorically: “So who is responsible for leaving us vulnerable to terrorists?”

• Another MoveOn.org Internet ad portrays Vice President Cheney as a fear-monger by using a creatively edited video clip in which he appears to be chanting “the beginning of the end of America” – when actually he was just quoting an al-Qaida member about the group’s goals.

• An ad from a new anti-Bush group, Texans for Truth, debuted on the Internet last week and began airing on TV this week. It hints that Bush deserted his National Guard unit in Alabama three decades ago.

None of those ads come from the official Kerry or Bush campaigns. Rather, they were unleashed by purportedly independent groups known as 527s, after the section of U.S. law that makes them tax-exempt and allows them to accept unlimited contributions.

527s have existed for decades, but this year they’re wallowing in dollars due to a 2002 campaign-reform law known as the McCain-Feingold Act that cracked down on campaign contributions to political parties and individual candidates.

Much of the money diverted from the parties has wound up in the coffers of 527s – and analysts say their independence from the candidates makes them much more inclined to rough-and-tumble tactics.

“There is no doubt that current campaign-finance restrictions have channeled money into 527s that are functioning as negative-campaign specialists, creating ads that are in bad taste or debase the level of debate,” says Williamson Evers, a research fellow at the Hoover Insitute in California. “527s, because they’re separate from the candidates, are in a better psychological state to engage in gutter-level politics.”

Just how independent some of the 527s really are has been hotly debated.

Both Kerry and Bush have charged that unfriendly 527s are coordinating their attacks with rival campaigns, and two men – including the chief outside counsel – had to resign from the Bush campaign after their connections with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were disclosed.

But even if their independence is an illusion, it offers public cover to the official campaigns.

“One of the main tactics in attack advertising is to use third parties to try to deflect the blame,” says Joel Rivlin of the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project, which analyzes political ads. “Otherwise you run a risk of a backlash for negative advertising.”

MoveOn.org officials argue that they’ve been unfairly criticized for the Hitler ads, which were actually entries in a contest the organization sponsored rather than something they produced. And, they add, negative advertising would continue to grow even if all the 527s went out of business tomorrow.

“The growth in attack ads stems from the feeling that they’re relatively effective at breaking through the clutter and driving home the point with voters,” says Adam Ruben, MoveOn.org’s field director.

“From the daisy ad of 1964 to the Willie Horton ad of 1988, there’s a strong tradition of attack ads, and the reason we remember them so well is that they worked – they won elections.”

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