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Willie Horton or Lincoln-Douglas?

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Today's question: Will the mood of the contest be civil but boring, nasty but entertaining, or something else? Will there be any action from a third party? Click here for previous installments from this week's Dust-Up.

Godspeed Obama's "fight the smears"Point: Ezra Klein
The other night, a friend told me a story that had a pretty fair bearing on the likely civility and high-mindedness of this election. My friend was sitting in a room when his buddy, who's a bit of a political obsessive (let's call him Tom) got a call. "No," Tom said into the phone. "Uh huh. Definitely not. [Pause.] Nope, no way at all. [Pause.] All right, take it easy."

What was that, my friend asked. Turned out a couple of Tom's pals were sitting in a bar. They weren't much into politics but someone had told them that Barack Obama was involved in the 9/11 attacks. Could that be true? They figured Tom would know. It's genuinely hard to say how the contest will play out. On the one hand, both Obama and John McCain are politicians with a deep and abiding sense of propriety. You get the feeling they practice their grave, staring-off-into-a-brighter-future stare in the mirror every morning. Then they have their corn flakes.

But just because McCain and Obama don't want to get ugly doesn't mean the election will be clean. The presidential nominees are only two actors in a fairly crowded media landscape. We all remember the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004 -- their assault worked well enough that you should expect many more groups to arise and replicate their third-party smear model. Such tactics let the campaigns keep their hands clean while smears are still pushed into the broader media stream. Worse, it's not subject to the wills of the campaigns, and therefor can't be reined in by the candidates' better angels.

The candidate who really needs to fear this is Obama. People know less about him than McCain, and the smears against him have been uglier: more racially tinged and reliant on xenophobia and fears of "otherness." There have been so many of them that the Obama campaign finally decided to punch back directly. This week, it unveiled fightthesmears.com. The first entry, as I write this, is about the rumors of a video tape in which Michelle Obama assails "whitey" while giving a guest sermon at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Normally, a campaign would ignore this, as you can't prove a negative. But the rumor's grown large enough that the Obama campaign felt compelled to respond. "No such tape exists," it says. "Michelle Obama has not spoken from the pulpit at Trinity and has not used that word."

Scroll down the page and you'll find posts addressing whether Obama is a Muslim (no), whether he's hiding his birth certificate to obscure the fact he was born in Kenya (no; his birth certificate is publicly available), and whether he refuses to say the pledge of allegiance (no; there's a video of him saying it).

But the existence of the site foretells the trajectory of the election. This stuff will get out there. It will make the rounds online in untraceable e-mail forwards and on talk radio. Some of it will come out on Fox News, as when some of its anchors recently mused about whether the Obamas' exchanging celebratory pounds was in fact some sort of secret "terrorist fist jab." It'll have its greatest purchase among the folks least likely to visit Obama's website. They will learn to hate and even fear Obama. The question is whether the Obama campaign can arm enough supporters with counter-facts that it can put down these smears as they arise, convincing folks one at a time that no, Obama isn't not a Manchurian terrorist married to another man.

The question, in other words, is how many Toms there are out there.

Ezra Klein is an associate editor at the American Prospect. He blogs at EzraKlein.com.


Prepare for dirt on both sides Counterpoint: Megan McArdle
I agree with you, Ezra, that the campaign to come will probably not feature the kind of back-biting and calumny that characterized the Democratic primary. Neither McCain nor Obama has shown any tendency to launch first-strike negative attacks. Nonetheless, it's not likely that the campaign will be boring. If nothing else, there will be the entertaining sight of Republicans looking at their shoes and blushing as McCain launches into one of his Bush-bashing routines.

But I hardly think that will be the only show. As you say, there's little doubt that third-party groups will step in to fill the dreaded "smear gap." By the time the campaign has run its course, we will have been repeatedly assured that both candidates are corrupt, venal, secret ideologues -- and also invented scurvy.

Expect to hear even more ridiculous claims that Obama is a secret Muslim, a die-hard foe of Israel, a member of the Black Panthers, and probably a long-time communist and Soviet spy to boot. These sorts of quasi-scurrilous charges put the campaign in an awful position. They're powerful, because they confirm the nation's secret fears about a left-wing black president. But pointing out that they are totally unfounded gives the attacks a wider hearing. And people have a tendency to believe that where there is smoke, there must be fire.

I doubt that Obama will be the only one facing a wave of attack ads and misleading "push polls." McCain's votes on various Senate bills and his many, many quotes will be libelously mutilated, folded and spindled. His supposed adulterous affairs will be dragged out of the muddy past or given new legs, as with the story about him and a lobbyist that ran in the New York Times earlier this year. One can't anticipate all of the dark allegations, but I wouldn't be surprised if even his war record -- one of McCain's chief assets -- came under attack.

The campaign will be lively for another reason: There's no incumbent, no presidential coattails. We are not being asked, in essence, whether we want seconds. Instead, we're talking about the future of the two parties and the country. Obama and McCain don't need to bash each other on vague character charges. They will have plenty of ammunition to fight a battle of ideas.

The only tedium will come from the sheer length of this campaign season. The primary campaigning started earlier than ever this cycle, and for the last six months the nation has been embroiled in the grueling drama of the primaries. Even the political reporters are kind of sick of the thing. Now that it's down to two candidates, of course, the arguments will be different. But I wonder if we didn't burn out America's fixed supply of political interest on the Hillary Clinton-Obama battle.

Megan McArdle is an associate editor and blogger at the Atlantic.

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