06/23/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Coming Obama-McCain Mudfight

At a Friday night fundraiser, Barack Obama warned supporters that Republicans "are going to try to scare people. They're going to try to say that 'that Obama is a scary guy.'" Someone in the crowd shouted, "Don't give in." Obama shot back: "If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun."

The next day, John McCain's campaign capitalized on Obama's wisecrack to announce that the gloves are off, declaring in an emailed statement:

"Barack Obama's call for 'new politics' is officially over. In just 24 hours, Barack Obama attacked one of America's pioneering women CEOs [McCain supporter Carly Fiorina], rejected a series of joint bipartisan town halls, and said that if there's a political knife fight, he'd bring a gun."

As each new charge raised by one side is used by the other to justify escalation, the presidential election is moving steadily toward what some call negative campaigning, but what others call raising legitimate and relevant issues.

Both sides know the direction such a campaign would take:

* A concerted drive by Democrats to describe McCain as a womanizer who left his crippled first wife to marry money; allowed his second wife to become addicted to painkillers; and is now running for president under the direction of every prominent Republican lobbyist in the nation's capitol.

* An onslaught of Republican ads showing Obama as a the son of an African Muslim; as a supporter of racial preferences; an associate of black and white critics of the United States; a politician biased against Israel; without the guts to deal with terrorists; and saddled with a wife lacking loyalty to or affection for America.

Brian Rogers, a McCain spokesman, told The Huffington Post, "it's very clear that Sen. McCain intends to run a respectful campaign focused on the issues. As you know he's even taken flak from Republicans during this campaign for insisting on this." Rogers noted that McCain asked North Carolina Republicans to pull an ad attacking Obama's former pastor Jeremiah Wright.

Both candidates have disassociated themselves from such attacks, but each side is watching the other closely. The consensus among professional observers is that the Republicans will fire first:

Larry O'Brien, son and namesake of the former Democratic Party chair and now a prominent lobbyist, noted, "the Republicans are truly in a world of deep political hurt" and "all they have going for them right now is that McCain has sort of a shot. Doing a multi-faceted Swift Boat-type assault on Obama could be a way to enhance the prognosis for McCain, and, to the extent a systematically executed trash and smash program does start to work, it might also prove to pay side-effect dividends in some of the down ballot Senate and House races."

Los Angeles-based Democratic consultant Bill Carrick similarly argued, "there is no way McCain wins a positive campaign with all the anti-Bush anti-Republican feeling in the country, so we will see a very negative and personal campaign against Senator Obama because there are no other strategic choices for McCain."

There are many Republicans outside the McCain campaign who argue strenuously that issues which might be viewed as "negative campaigning" are, in fact, entirely legitimate and important for voters who are making crucial choices.

"Obama has four main weaknesses, all of which are legitimate areas of inquiry: inexperience, ideology, culture, and associations," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. "If John McCain liked to hang around Nazis and Klansmen, if his church gave a lifetime achievement award to David Duke, we would all think those were legitimate areas of inquiry. The same is true of Obama. His associations give us a window into his values and beliefs, since most of us hang around people who are pretty similar to ourselves."

Ayres added that he has "no idea what the McCain campaign will do on this score -- I suspect they will avoid it -- but I think exploring his associations is completely legitimate."

Black conservative Deroy Murdock, who writes for National Review and Townhall, contended that "John McCain's best bet is to compare his vision for limited-government solutions, low taxes, and greater individual freedom and choice versus Barack Obama's expensive agenda of high-tax, big-government, bureaucratic programs."

Murdock added, however, that "Obama's frightening collection of far-left friends" are not out of bounds:

"Americans will find them increasingly worrisome and ask the inevitable question: Does Barack Obama associate with his radical, even seditious pals because they are such great company, or does he share their extremist, often anti-American views? If voters begin to believe the latter, Obama will be in big trouble. This is a fair issue."

Murdock argued that it would be entirely legitimate for McCain to "discuss this, but he likely will not have to, as conservative commentators, Republican activists, and GOP members of Congress surely will educate the American public about this side of Senator Obama's story."

There is widespread agreement that the GOP is far more likely than the Democratic Party to pull the trigger first in raising negative critiques of Obama, his wife, and his associates.

"My guess would be Republicans [will go first], since it's essentially the Democrats' election to lose. As the poll numbers get worse and worse for them, I would predict that they will pull out all of the stops to try to damage Obama," said Columbia political scientist Gregory Wawro.

Lynn Vavreck of the UCLA Department of Political Science pointed out, "Candidates only get to tell their story once... the general public already knows John McCain's story... he's been in the Senate a long time, he supported the surge, and he was a leader on campaign finance. But the general public does not know Obama's story yet. The primary voters do, but not those marginal voters who only vote in the general election. If the Republicans can help "tell" the Obama story, they will try... history isn't a great guide here as we've never had an African American on the ticket -- and I do think race is going to play a big role -- despite the progress we've made, survey data shows that there are still a lot of people out there with high levels of racial resentment. Some of these people are moderates, (not many), and some are independents (a few more), but ... this could weaken the economic and other structural advantages."

Drew Westen of Emory University was the most declarative: "There's no other path to victory for [Republicans] this year than to make Barack Obama foreign and dangerous."