If President Obama is already running campaign ads that showcase people describing Mitt Romney as a "vampire" and a "job destroyer," what will the ads be like by November?
It's not unusual for an incumbent president to launch springtime attacks against a challenger, but the tone of the ads Obama has already run regarding Romney's business record and his views on foreign policy and social issues portend a highly negative campaign, political observers say.
"It's hyperbole every election to say, 'This is the most negative election ever,' " says Republican consultant Dave Carney. "I think hyperbole will be fact this cycle."
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, has not shied from criticizing Obama, running hostile ads and devoting the bulk of most of his speeches to claims that a second Obama term would do serious harm to the economy and individual freedom.
But a challenger will always attack. A presidential race can turn particularly vicious when the incumbent feels vulnerable and begins castigating his opponent.
"When they feel the heat, that's when they bring out the heavy artillery, says Kerwin Swint, author of Mudslingers: The Twenty-Five Dirtiest Political Campaigns of All Time.
With the economy still wobbly and Obama barely ahead or sometimes trailing Romney in the latest polls, the president's campaign will do everything it can to sully Romney's name before swing voters can picture him comfortably in the White House, Swint says
"They don't want to give independents a chance to get used to Mitt Romney as a credible president," says Swint, a political scientist at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. "Those images of greed and laying people off — that's what they want to shape over the summer."
Not Above The Fray
There was a time presidents seeking re-election shied away from tearing down their opponents, at least this early in the campaign year.
Bill Clinton began running TV ads a full year ahead of his 1996 re-election bid, but they criticized Republicans in general, as opposed to his eventual opponent, Bob Dole. In 1984, Ronald Reagan barely mentioned his Democratic challenger, Walter Mondale, until the fall.
George W. Bush took a more aggressive approach in 2004. As soon as Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry had sewn up the Democratic nomination, Bush went on the attack.
"The day after Super Tuesday, Bush had a meeting at the White House and said, 'Let's go after Kerry as a flip-flopper,' " says William Schneider, a veteran political analyst who teaches public policy at George Mason University. "It was Bush, not Karl Rove, who decided on the strategy."
Bush not only attacked Kerry, he sought to undermine Kerry's ability to present himself as a war hero and not a wimpy Democrat.
Obama now is trying to do the same thing against Romney, whose success as a "turnaround artist" in business and public service is the driving premise of his campaign.
"What they're trying to do in both cases is to chip away at their opponent's perceived strength," says Jim Jordan, a Democratic consultant who served as Kerry's campaign manager for part of his presidential run.
"As distasteful as it is for me to analogize between Obama and the Bush folks, that is a fair [comparison]," Jordan says. "It's a very smart strategy for the Obama guys to be using."
Sending A Message
Republicans say Obama is going on the attack because of the weakness of his own record. But this campaign was bound to be negative because of the very real differences between the two candidates across a variety of policy areas, says David Mark, author of Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning.
"It's a clashing vision of government," Mark says. "It's inevitably going to be negative and a contrast between the candidates."
Mark, a senior editor at Politico, says Romney learned from his first run for elective office — his 1994 Senate race — that he needs to respond to negative attacks. (His opponent, Democratic Sen. Teddy Kennedy, also slammed Romney's record in business in that campaign.)
"Romney is going to show how pugilistic he can be — not Mr. Nice Guy," Mark says. He certainly showed that in the primary, with attacks against Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.
Obama, who has a similarly technocratic and perhaps even more dispassionate image, has already shown that he intends to give as good as he gets — or better.
"I was shocked that the Obama campaign wasn't up and hitting Romney harder a couple of weeks ago," says Ken Goldstein, president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group at Kantar Media, an ad-tracking firm.
Now is the time for Obama to go after Romney, Goldstein says, before impressions of Romney are fully formed and before any distinct campaign message gets lost in the noise and heat of the race in the fall.
"The whole story of the 2012 campaign is how similar it is to 2004," Goldstein adds.
More Money, More Ads
But the campaign finance landscape has changed dramatically since George W. Bush's re-election bid eight years ago.
There have long been attack ads run by outside groups, but the budgets of superPACs this year are expected to be far larger than anything seen before. In addition, both Obama and Romney are doing their own fundraising, as opposed to relying on limited funds provided by the federal government, as most previous candidates had done.
It's typical for incumbents to try to "scorch the earth" around lesser-known, underfunded challengers, says Carney, the GOP consultant. But Romney, he points out, is not an unknown at this point and certainly won't be underfunded. He'll be getting help from groups such as Crossroads GPS, a Republican organization associated with Rove that was highly influential in the 2010 elections and is now planning a 10-state, $25 million ad blitz.
And while the conventional wisdom this year has been that the campaigns themselves will outsource much of the work of negative attacks to superPACs, letting them do the dirty work, the opposite may be true. There will be so much money involved in this campaign that the candidates themselves will have to lob and answer attacks, to make sure messages they control get heard.
"Voters see a superPAC's negative ad and they don't dissociate it with the candidate," says Jordan, the Democratic consultant. "As a candidate, you carry the attacks your side makes — they stick to you."