Campaigns get uglier as primary nears

With the primary election less than a month away, the two leading candidates for Kansas' open U.S. Senate seat are sharpening their barbs.

Observers say that's particularly true for Todd Tiahrt, who is locked in a battle with House colleague Jerry Moran for the Republican nomination in the Aug. 3 primary.

"What we're seeing is that Tiahrt, who is clearly behind in the polls, has taken an aggressive attack," said Burdett Loomis, political science professor at the University of Kansas. "He's trying to find stuff that will stick against Moran."

Tiahrt's campaign began its "Moran Mythbuster" list in May and is now up to five — each attacking various claims by Moran on such issues as taxes and earmarks.

At the same time, Moran is pushing back with claims of his own.

Last month's SurveyUSA poll shows Moran leading Tiahrt by 20 percent.

"When a candidate is falling behind in the polls, one of the quickest ways they try to recover is go negative," said Ken Ciboski, political science professor at Wichita State University.

So sharp words are flying back and forth.

Go to Tiahrt's campaign website and you'll see Karl Rove claiming Moran bargained his vote on a trade bill in 2002.

"They have put out statements that are categorically false," Moran campaign spokesman Dan Conston said. "It's pretty disappointing how they've run their campaign so far."

Of course, what one side calls negative campaigning, the other camp sees as comparison campaigning.

Michelle Schroeder, spokeswoman for Tiahrt's campaign, said all the information to support its claims about Moran is "completely documented."

"It may not be comfortable for Congressman Moran to talk about, and he may categorize that as negative," she said. "But for us it's 100 percent issue-based and fully documented."

As for the suggestions that Tiahrt is far behind in the polls, Schroeder said, "We're absolutely comfortable where we are."

'Pretty nerdy'

Such topics as earmarks and who did or didn't vote for one tax cut or another have been at the center of both campaigns.

"The essence of the arguments they're having are pretty nerdy," Loomis said. "It starts to get way inside baseball.

"I don't see that moving the electorate. People's eyes glaze over."

Last month's theme took a peculiar twist.

Moran's campaign has emphasized that he never moved his family to Washington and chooses to come home to Hays each weekend.

In a TV ad, Moran is shown apparently driving through Kansas and talking to Kansans. The ad's voice-over concludes by saying, "And unlike Todd Tiahrt, Jerry actually lives here."

In response, a news release from the Tiahrt camp complained that Moran's ad attacked Tiahrt and his family's decision to remain together during the legislative session and was "insensitive and frankly un-Kansan."

"Todd and Vicki should never apologize for keeping their family together, especially given the loss of their 16-year-old son, Luke, in 2004. Attacking a personal family decision is the ugliest of Washington politics and has no place in our great state. Congressman Moran's attacks are inexcusable and he should apologize immediately."

Along the way, Robert Noland, Tiahrt's district director, put on Twitter, "Vicki Tiahrt has never been forced into the role of a single mom."

Moran's campaign said the ad was pointing out the difference between how the two congressmen operate and had nothing to do with families.

"A nice campaign would be if they could discuss the issues in a straightforward, truthful way — the real issues and not some of these nit-picking things," Ciboski said. "It happens on both sides."

Checking the records

The challenge for these two men who look so much alike politically is to set themselves apart from each other.

"You can only do that so far with your own record," Loomis said. "What (Tiahrt) really has to do is demonstrate that Jerry isn't this true conservative. Which, of course, is reasonably difficult given their voting scores are very, very similar."

Negative campaigning can turn off citizens to the point they may not even show up at the polls. Or the ads may prick a voter's interest to the point he'll check out the facts for himself.

Loomis is banking on the latter.

"Do you learn much from Tiahrt or Moran smiling with a bunch of kids and saying, 'I'm a good guy?' " the KU professor asked. "There's hardly much content there.

"Anything that makes you look at the records even slightly is good. It gets people to thinking."

But Ciboski said that's not likely to happen.

"Voters are kind of lazy," he said. "They're busy with their lives."

Ciboski said less-informed voters are more likely to soak up information from negative campaigns.

"The committed people are not really going to be affected," he said.

Nonetheless, Ciboski and Loomis agreed the race will see more negative campaigning.

"If you're behind, you want to have something to shake things up," Loomis said.