Earlier this month, an open microphone caught Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in an unguarded moment, muttering to supporters about the Republican opposition.
"These guys are the most crooked, you know, lying group I've ever seen," he said.
Mr. Kerry later said he was not referring to President Bush or Republicans in general. He was singling out GOP political strategists, who had been hammering his voting record in the U.S. Senate. The flap brought attention to those colorful players in the U.S. presidential campaign known as political attack dogs.
Americans know the drill. TV talk-show hosts describe the latest political controversy in melodramatic tones. Then they trot out each party's pit bulls from a large kennel of smart, sharp-fanged pundits who are always on call, straining at the leash to verbally maim each other. Here's an example from ABC-TV. Kiki McClean is the Democrat; Ralph Reed, the Republican. "John Kerry is moving out with a very compelling message of change in the economy, which is bleeding jobs under George Bush, and change for this go-it-alone foreign policy, which has been disastrous," said Ms. McClean.
"Look, the American people just don't know that John Kerry has voted 350 times for higher taxes, that he voted to kill 27 weapons systems entirely ...," replied Mr. Reed.
What's all this bickering about, and how did it become such a staple of American politics? Virginia writer B.J. Rudell, who wrote a grassroots account of presidential campaigning called Only in New Hampshire says each side employs these combative surrogates for the candidates in order to energize the base of already-committed voters.
"They're there to get people watching at home to say, 'Yeah! You go get 'em. That's what I want to hear out of my side,'" said Mr. Rudell. "And in the process, the candidates can really take the high road, look more presidential, seize on issues and discourse that appeal to the all-important independent voters, who generally swing each election."
Ned Barnett has fed political attack dogs raw meat as a speechwriter for Democratic and Republican gubernatorial and U.S. Senate candidates. Mr. Barnett, who now runs a political consulting firm in Las Vegas, Nevada, says many of these shouters can write thoughtful position papers one minute, and go ballistic on cue the next.
"Most of these people are sophisticated strategists," said Mr. Barnett. "They're studying polls, news articles, the comments made by their candidate and the other candidate. And they're coming up with very carefully crafted analyses on what to say and how to say it.
"Then they turn on the attack-dog switch," he continued, "throwing verbal rocks at each other. Facts are distorted or totally ignored in the effort to make enough noise to drown out the other side. But they're not going to accomplish anything. Nobody's going to be persuaded."
Wrong, says one expert on the art of persuasion. Hellen Davis, the author of the book The 21 Laws of Influence, says attack dogs do score points with viewers and even change some minds.
"If you look at the major talk shows, and you look at the listenership, eight million white men listen to a certain talk-show host, and his programming is all about screaming, and they have the mentality of 'screamer du jour,'" she said. "If the screamer du jour happens to have a sound bite that they like the day before the election, that is exactly what they are going to make their voting decision on."
Hellen Davis says the only way to stop the madness, as she puts it, is for one side's surrogates to refuse the bait, let the other side rant, and then respond calmly and quietly. Of course, Ms. Davis admits, TV producers would immediately scratch such a rational person from future appearances.
Many Americans who describe themselves as ordinary citizens and political moderates, as 60-year-old Lynda O'Connor does, say they're sick of the political sound and fury. Ms. O'Connor runs a small business outside Chicago.
"I'm offended," she said. "We turn it off half the time because there's too much conflict. It's a confirmation to other countries that we're rude and that we're not considerate of other people. Instead of a discussion, it's more like attacking each other - screaming and yelling, just to kind of vent."
So if political attack dogs repulse thoughtful voters, why are Americans seeing more and more of them on television? Ned Barnett says it's simple. Like on-air brawls among jilted lovers and made-for-TV contests in which participants will do just about anything to win money, attack-dog matches make lively television.
"People will tune in to see that," said Mr. Barnett. "It's like, you drive by a building that's on fire, and you can't help but look. It's kind of a dirty little pleasure."
And so, the political gladiators strap on their talking points and step back into the ring.
"The three million people who don't have a job under this president recognize where change is and change isn't," said Mr. McClean. "And it's not with George Bush. It's with John Kerry. The other thing ..."
"That's just simply not true," fought back Mr. Reed. "The president's not going to be satisfied until every American who wants a job ..."
There's a whimsical Warner Brothers cartoon series about Ralph the Wolf and Sam the Sheepdog. After wishing each other good morning and punching a time clock, Ralph tries every trick to catch Sam's sheep, and Sam fights him at every turn. When the work whistle blows at the end of the day, they punch out and wish each other a good evening. Observers of political attack dogs see a parallel, because these bitter foes can often be seen sharing a laugh over a beer or rubbing elbows at the same dinner party once the television lights are turned off. It's as if all their bluster is, at least on one level, a carefully choreographed show.
P.J. Rudell's Only in New Hampshire: My Journey on the Campaign Trail is published by Plaidswede Publishing. Hellen Davis's 21 Laws of Influence is published by Indaba Press.