When Candidates Attack

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Joshua Lott / Reuters

Barack Obama gives his foreign policy speech at the Coralville Marriott Hotel & Conference in Coralville, Iowa, October 2, 2007.

It's not in any network's fall lineup, but there's no doubt that the new TV season will include several episodes of that quadrennial reality show favorite: When Candidates Attack.

With just three months until the still first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, candidates for both parties' nominations are starting to sharpen their knives — and their one-liners — and look for the best place to stick both.

To an outsider, attacking your opponents may seem like a natural impulse in politicians, born of the fiery passion or snap judgment of the candidate. In truth, the choice of words in each attack is heavily considered, vetted and frequently poll-tested. While "going negative" is a often a highly effective tactic, voters generally claim to dislike candidates who resort to such tactics. So hitting the right tone you want at the right time takes a fair amount of stealth and nuance.

To achieve that, candidates depend on a wide range of strategies. And since politics is war by another means, we present the five Defcon levels of political attacks.

Defcon 5: Attack by implication. No names are named, but everyone knows who you're taking about. Take Barack Obama's major foreign policy address this week, in which he launched a broadside against "the conventional thinking in Washington" that led to the war in Iraq. He never mentioned Senator Hillary Clinton by name, but the entire press corps immediately understood that when he talks about those who "argue that they weren't really voting for war, they were voting for inspectors, or for diplomacy," he means Clinton. Obama continued the offensive by framing the entire race for the Democratic nomination as a "choice that has emerged in this campaign, one that the American people need to understand. They should ask themselves: who got the single most important foreign policy decision since the end of the Cold War right, and who got it wrong?" The entire speech continued in this way. It never mentioned the front-runner by name, but everyone knew whom he was talking about.

Defcon 4: Attack by position. Between attacking by implication and actually naming one's opponent, there's an intermediate step: referring to your opponent only by his or her position. At his rally in New York's Washington Square Park on last week, Barack Obama took this tack: "There are folks who will shift positions and policies on all kinds of things depending on which way the wind is blowing," he told the crowd. "Even your Senator from New York wasn't clear about the Yankees. I know who I'm rooting for." Needless to say, Obama wasn't taking on Chuck Schumer.

Defcon 3: Attack with faint praise. The opponent is named, but the shiv is delivered with a smile. John Edwards, perhaps true to his Southern roots, is an expert at delivering this kind of attack. Witness Edwards' comments in last week's presidential debate on troop withdrawals from Iraq: "I don't have any doubt that Senator Clinton wants to take a responsible course. There is a difference, however, in how we would go about this." He then proceeded to argue that Clinton would actually extend the war in Iraq, not end it. Or take Senator Joe Biden's comments at an AARP forum on September 21 after Governor Bill Richardson touted his gubernatorial experience: "God love him," Biden quipped. "But that's like saying 'I played halfback when I was in high school; I can play in the pros.'"

Defcon 2: Full-frontal attack. This is a significant escalation. Mitt Romney launched one against Rudy Giuliani in Iowa this past August: "If you look at lists compiled on Web sites of sanctuary cities [cities hospitable to illegal immigrants], New York is at the top of the list when Mayor Giuliani was mayor. He instructed city workers not to provide information to the federal government that would allow them to enforce the law. New York City was the poster child for sanctuary cities in the country." Not wanting to escalate the confrontation any more, the Giuliani campaign responded strongly, using Romney's name, but the candidate, notably, did not.

Defcon 1: Global Thermonuclear War. OK, it's not that bad. But unlike Defcon 2, no punches are pulled: the attacks go beyond dismantling an opponent's record and take on a nasty tone of derision. Right now, these rhetorical bunker-busters are mainly directed across the aisle — at front-runners in the other party in order to bolster one's own partisan bona fides. At the last Democratic debate, Joe Biden said that Rudy Giuliani was "the most uninformed person on American foreign policy now running for President." And in a blisteringly partisan speech to the Young Republican National Convention in July, Mitt Romney first compared Hillary Clinton to Karl Marx, and then claimed that "with her economic plan, Hillary Clinton couldn't be elected president of France."

Never mind that the French haven't elected a Socialist — much less a Communist — President since 1988. Given where many of the attacks are aimed right now, it seems that candidates in both parties aren't afraid the French will elect Hillary Clinton President, but that Americans will.

Kenneth Baer is the founder of Baer Communications, LLC. Jeff Nussbaum is a principal of the communications firm West Wing Writers. Both were speechwriters for Vice President Al Gore.