Swift Boat-style attacks have been relatively muted so far this election season, but a barrage of vicious ads attacking Barack Obama's stance on abortion, his association with Jeremiah Wright, and his attitude toward religion, have already surfaced in some states on television and in viral form on the web.
Unlike their predecessors in 2004, the independently funded organizations behind these personal attack campaigns aren't aiming to kick up a national storm. Their nastiest assaults are of a stealthier variety.
Guys like McCain just don't have the stomach for it, and because of that the 527 groups are going to have to go very negative in these last two weeks.
"Everything's going on under the radar screen," said Stephen Marks, a self-described political hitman whose organization, pH for America is responsible for one of the more controversial anti-Obama ads claiming that Obama "mocked and ridiculed" the bible.
"They're targeting very specific groups," he said. “It started on YouTube, where it gathered [over] 4 million hits.” It is now airing in four swing states, he said, and may expand to two more before the election is over.”
So-called 527 groups were spawned by a loophole in campaign contribution limits. They can receive unrestricted donations so long as they don't coordinate their campaigning with the candidates.
The best known 527, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, launched a devastating attack on John Kerry's military record in 2004. President Bush turned his nose up publicly, saying he respected Kerry's service record, but voters paid attention to the ads.
This year, however, 527s have been much quieter. Wealthy conservatives don't like McCain enough to go to bat for him, it seems, and Obama has raised so much money he has not needed to cede control of his message to outsiders. Another factor may be that attacks on leadership qualities don't resonate with voters this time round.
"I think in this kind of environment, where the economy is critically important to people, those kinds of ads are less effective," said Doug Schoen, a Democratic consultant. "I'm not aware that they're happening in a serious and sustained way."
While 527 activity has markedly decreased—the groups' TV ad spending is only a tenth of what it was four years ago—and many analysts see their impact in the 2008 election as marginal so far, some say the biggest shift is in tactics, not influence.
527s may be putting much of their money into viral videos, mailings, robocalls, and other voter mobilization efforts that are not as overt as television and radio advertising, said Glenn Totten, a Democratic strategist. They also appear not to be focused on grabbing the nationwide attention that characterized the Swift Boat campaign.
"I believe that when it comes to the McCain campaign, they are playing a pretty significant role," Totten said. "If you have a fairly decent polling operation, and you know who your persuadables are, it's much easier to narrow down the universe...You're able to utilize your resource to get who you actually want to reach."
Negative campaigning may become more apparent as the election looms closer. Even the McCain campaign is reconsidering its earlier decision not to make an issue out of Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright, whose remarks dogged him in the primary, Rick Davis, McCain’s top campaign adviser admitted. “We’re in the process of looking at how we’re going to close this campaign," Davis told talk radio host Hugh Hewitt.
Still, Marks said, even if McCain has a change of mind and gives the green light to an all out Jeremiah Wright inspired campaign, independent groups will be left to do the real dirty work. "It's up to us to get the message out," Marks said.
And he warned that the worst was still to come. "Guys like McCain just don't have the stomach for it, and because of that the 527 groups are going to have to go very negative in these last two weeks," he said.