WASHINGTON (AP) — If voters were looking for reasons to keep ignoring the presidential campaign this summer, they got plenty of them this week.
Friday capped a weeklong stretch of campaign character attacks masked in so-called television advertisements that sparked a series of claims that the other guy is fabricating the facts.
"What does it say about a president's character when his campaign tries to use the tragedy of a woman's death for political gain?" screams a new ad from Mitt Romney's campaign that seeks to link President Barack Obama to an outside group's commercial.
Hitting back, White House press secretary Jay Carney took Romney's campaign to task for a Republican group's ad suggesting that Obama isn't an American citizen.
The outrage must mean the ads at issue are blanketing the airwaves in battleground states, right?
Nope. Most of the ads bandied about by the campaigns and their backers this week are only being seen on the Internet or the occasional news show, according to Democrats and Republicans who track what ads are on the air and where. Instead, many of these big announcements of scathing ads are little more than tactical maneuvers aimed at proving a point, generating news coverage or sending up a trial balloon to see if any of the attacks stick.
In some cases, they're not intended for swing-voting viewers who tend to tell pollsters that negative advertising turns them off. Few people are paying attention anyway in the Olympics-filled summer lull before the conventions kick off the fall homestretch.
On one hand, none of this is really all that new.
Who can forget the explosive Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ad in 2004 that questioned Democrat John Kerry's military service? It barely ran on the TV airwaves. Yet, it created huge controversy. The media coverage of it — including the free airtime it got on news programs — was immense and it so sullied the Massachusetts senator that summer that he could never recover.
Eight years later, the same game is being played but on a changed technological playing field.
Today, campaigns can more swiftly create hard-hitting campaign videos and, with a couple of keystrokes, blast them across the Internet by posting them on YouTube and emailing them to countless people in hopes that they go viral. For free. And without ever having to pay pricy rates to get them on TV.
No one is guiltless of playing this game. To varying degrees, Obama, Romney and their allies are all stretching the truth, taking comments out of context or simply calling each other names.
The president called his Republican challenger's tax plans "Romney Hood." Romney called the president's campaign attacks "Obama-loney," rhyming his new catch phrase with "baloney."
Carney, the Obama spokesman, called a Romney campaign ad on welfare — one that actually is on the air — "categorically false and blatantly dishonest." Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior Romney adviser, said the Obama campaign had sunk "lower than a world-champion limbo dancer."
This comes from campaigns that often declare they wish the other side would focus on substance in an election both call the most important of our lifetime.
To be sure, Obama and Romney do talk about issues like jobs, the deficit and the Afghanistan war as they travel across the country and meet with voters. But any semblance of a substantive campaign is threatening to be drowned out by the increasing vitriol.
The situation reached new heights — or rather low ones — this week with a flurry of ads and unusually heated responses from the campaigns, even by the standards of this already negative race for the White House.
First, the Romney campaign released an ad attacking Obama for dismantling welfare reform. Unlike most of the ads released this week, this one is actually airing on television in nine politically important states.
Independent fact-checkers said the Romney ad misconstrued the facts. Obama's spokesman told reporters the ad showed "hypocrisy knows no bounds" and the campaign enlisted former President Bill Clinton, the architect of welfare reform, to discredit the attack as well.
The second salvo came from Priorities USA Action, a super PAC supporting Obama and run by two former White House aides. The spot seeks to link Romney to the death of woman whose husband lost his job and health insurance when his company was shut down by Romney's private equity firm.
Once again, fact-checkers said the ad shaded the truth. The Romney team said the ad was "despicable" and called on Obama to repudiate it.
As of Friday, the Priorities ad wasn't running on television. And Obama aides refused to condemn it, saying that because they are legally prohibited from coordinating with super PACs, they had no control over the ad and didn't know the facts about the man it featured.
The only problem with that claim? Joe Soptic, the man featured in the Priorities ad, appeared earlier this year in an official Obama campaign commercial and on a conference call.
So Obama's team tried another approach. Carney, the White House spokesman, said that if Republicans want Obama to disavow the Democratic super PAC's ads, then Romney should repudiate an ad from a GOP-leaning group that questions whether the president was born in the U.S.
Had enough? Only three more months until Election Day.
Associated Press writers Kasie Hunt in Boston, and Steve Peoples and Philip Elliott in Washington contributed to this report.
Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC.