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Campaign 2012 descends into trench warfare


Updated 1:24 p.m. - August has seen the presidential contest devolve into a protracted type of trench warfare between Democratic incumbent Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, as each campaign trades countervailing – and increasingly negative – blows with the other.

The high-minded aspirations associated with Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s addition to the Republican ticket have all but vanished in the handful of days since Romney named him as running mate. Daily sniping and low blows have now pervaded the 2012 campaign.

Evan Vucci / AP

Mitt Romney arrives at his headquarters, Friday, Aug. 17, 2012, in Boston.

“If the other guy's throwing punches, you've got to throw punches right back,” said Craig T. Smith, a former White House political director for Bill Clinton, who likened the millions spent on ads by both campaigns to a Cold War arms race.

A Republican official familiar with the party’s general election strategy offered a similar assessment: “If we weren't throwing punch for punch, then the story would be whether we're up for the task.”

The past week alone has seen the president of the United States joke about an instance in which Romney strapped the family dog to the roof of his car during a road trip. And Vice President Joe Biden told a mixed-race audience that Republicans, along with Wall Street, would “put y’all back in chains.”

Romney responded by accusing the president of “division and attack and hatred.” The presumptive Republican nominee’s allies at the Republican National Committee released a video taking the president to task for abandoning the mantle of hope-and-change on which he ran in 2008.

Moreover, the two campaigns have tangled lately over Romney's charge that Obama has gutted welfare's work requirement, and a pro-Obama super PAC's ad essentially tying Romney to a woman's death from cancer. And this morning, each campaign's manager traded open letters as stagecraft, demanding that Romney release more tax returns.

Summertime during presidential campaigns doesn’t have a particularly proud tradition of being constructive, but this year’s negativity nonetheless reflects some emerging political realities.

“Neither side is going to say that out loud, but the idea is to keep independent-minded people from turning out because they're just so disgusted about the process,” said David Mark, the editor of the website Politix, who wrote a book on the purpose and effectiveness of negative campaigning. “Both sides seemed to reach a conclusion that there aren't that many more independent voters, so they're focused on turning out their base.”

That helps explain why Romney’s selection of Ryan has done little to shift the polls or the arc of the campaign. The pick was directed more toward exciting conservatives than it was about winning over independents.

"Meet the Press" moderator David Gregory and the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson join a conversation on how the tone of the 2012 presidential campaign has shifted to more personal attacks and how both parties have spent $500M in campaign ad spending.

It did add a new element to the campaign, though, by putting the most controversial elements of the Wisconsin congressman's budgets – particularly the Medicare reforms – into the center of the election. But even still, discussion of the imperiled entitlement program this past week has focused more on each campaign attacking the other's position than offering up any affirmative solution.

Republican pollster Whit Ayres disagrees that the election will become one in which each side must focus on turning out its own supporters; the perception that the race is competitive, and that the stakes are high, will drive these prized voters to the polls.

But, he argued, enthusiasm is on the Republicans’ side, and that was only bolstered by Romney’s selection of Ryan.

“It didn’t take a stunningly insightful person and look at Mitt Romney standing in front of the USS Wisconsin and seeing he was relaxed and more confident,” Ayres said of last weekend’s introductory event. “Those are intangibles that can be important in an election this close.”

Mark McKinnon, a former strategist to President George W. Bush, argued that turnout would go down as a result of the negativity, which “could hurt Obama more.”

But Democrats argue that Republicans’ more aggressive engagement may well come too late, given all the efforts by the Obama campaign to define their opponent.

“They should have had this posture in May. Now they're trying to unring a bell,” said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons.

David Gregory, host of NBC's "Meet the Press," speaks with TODAY's Savannah Guthrie about the ongoing inquisition into Mitt Romney's financials and whether or not his running mate, Paul Ryan, has helped the GOP ticket.

But they’re also excited that Ryan’s joining of the Republican ticket has added Medicare, an issue on which Democrats traditionally enjoy an advantage, to the national campaign.

“The Republican argument that the Democratic president is trying to harm Medicare would be like Democrats arguing that a Republican president is trying to harm the military,” said Simmons. “To be able to convince people of that, you have to be wielding a pretty convincing dagger.”

Past Augusts have not been kind to Obama, who saw his popularity flirt with record lows during the debt ceiling debate last summer, and during the vocal 2009 protests against his health care reform proposals.

August is also a month that has seen candidates like John McCain and John Kerry struggle to hit their stride. To that end, Romney has weathered months of tough criticism this summer, most of which was driven by the Obama campaign.

Neither Obama nor Romney have any interest in suffering the dog days of summer, and have sought to seize control of the month's news cycle. And that's why both have fought intensely — and more negatively — in recent weeks.

“We're in the part of the campaign where we need to make sure we're getting the reality out there,” said the Republican official. “From our perspective, we're pointing out the tactics the president has been using. “

The goal, for both sides, may be to simply survive. This thinking dictates that if a candidate can make it to their convention without suffering critical blows, they will be in position to reposture themselves before the heat of the fall campaign.

But, said Smith, “At the rate they're going, the question is how many swing voters are left at the end. “