Harsh advertisements and negative attacks are a staple of presidential campaigns, but Senator John McCain has drawn an avalanche of criticism this week from Democrats, independent groups and even some Republicans for regularly stretching the truth in attacking Senator Barack Obama’s record and positions.
Mr. Obama has also been accused of distortions, but this week Mr. McCain has found himself under particularly heavy fire for a pair of headline-grabbing attacks. First the McCain campaign twisted Mr. Obama’s words to suggest that he had compared Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, to a pig after Mr. Obama said, in questioning Mr. McCain’s claim to be the change agent in the race, “You can put lipstick on a pig; it’s still a pig.” (Mr. McCain once used the same expression to describe Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s health plan.)
Then he falsely claimed that Mr. Obama supported “comprehensive sex education” for kindergartners (he supported teaching them to be alert for inappropriate advances from adults).
Those attacks followed weeks in which Mr. McCain repeatedly, and incorrectly, asserted that Mr. Obama would raise taxes on the middle class, even though analysts say he would cut taxes on the middle class more than Mr. McCain would, and misrepresented Mr. Obama’s positions on energy and health care.
A McCain advertisement called “Fact Check” was itself found to be “less than honest” by FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan group. The group complained that the McCain campaign had cited its work debunking various Internet rumors about Ms. Palin and implied in the advertisement that the rumors had originated with Mr. Obama.
In an interview Friday on the NY1 cable news channel, a McCain supporter, Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, called “ridiculous” the implication that Mr. Obama’s “lipstick on a pig” comment was a reference to Ms. Palin, whom he also defended as coming under unfair attack.
“The last month, for sure,” said Don Sipple, a Republican advertising strategist, “I think the predominance of liberty taken with truth and the facts has been more McCain than Obama.”
Indeed, in recent days, Mr. McCain has been increasingly called out by news organizations, editorial boards and independent analysts like FactCheck.org. The group, which does not judge whether one candidate is more misleading than another, has cried foul on Mr. McCain more than twice as often since the start of the political conventions as it has on Mr. Obama.
A McCain spokesman, Brian Rogers, said the campaign had evidence for all its claims. “We stand fully by everything that’s in our ads,” Mr. Rogers said, “and everything that we’ve been saying we provide detailed backup for — everything. And if you and the Obama campaign want to disagree, that’s your call.”
Mr. McCain came into the race promoting himself as a truth teller and has long publicly deplored the kinds of negative tactics that helped sink his candidacy in the Republican primaries in 2000. But his strategy now reflects a calculation advisers made this summer — over the strenuous objections of some longtime hands who helped him build his “Straight Talk” image — to shift the campaign more toward disqualifying Mr. Obama in the eyes of voters.
“I think the McCain folks realize if they can get this thing down in the mud, drag Obama into the mud, that’s where they have the best advantage to win,” said Matthew Dowd, who worked with many top McCain campaign advisers when he was President Bush’s chief strategist in the 2004 campaign, but who has since had a falling out with the White House. “If they stay up at 10,000 feet, they don’t.”
For all the criticism, the offensive seems to be having an impact. It has been widely credited by strategists in both parties with rejuvenating Mr. McCain’s campaign and putting Mr. Obama on the defensive since it began early this summer.
Some who have criticized Mr. McCain have accused him of blatant untruths and of failing to correct himself when errors were pointed out.
On Friday on “The View,” generally friendly territory for politicians, one co-host, Joy Behar, criticized his new advertisements. “We know that those two ads are untrue,” Ms. Behar said. “They are lies. And yet you, at the end of it, say, ‘I approve these messages.’ Do you really approve them?”
“Actually they are not lies,” Mr. McCain said crisply, “and have you seen some of the ads that are running against me?”
Mr. Obama’s hands have not always been clean in this regard. He was called out earlier for saying, incorrectly, that Mr. McCain supported a “hundred-year war” in Iraq after Mr. McCain said in January that he would be fine with a hypothetical 100-year American presence in Iraq, as long as Americans were not being injured or killed there.