WASHINGTON -- Sinister characters are scheming in a smoke-filled room, in a television ad that depicts big campaign contributors to Bob Casey, a Democrat running for Senate in Pennsylvania.
After detailing the legal troubles that each donor faces -- including an FBI investigation and jail time -- the somber narrator asks, "Where does Casey hold his campaign meetings?"
The camera pulls back to show the cigar-smoking "campaign team" -- behind bars.
That graphic, personal attack on the candidate challenging Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) is a particularly sharp-edged example of a key strategy in the Republican political arsenal as the party fights to keep control of Congress: going negative and personal, early and often.
While President Bush and national GOP leaders are attacking Democrats on such big issues as national security and America's role in the world, individual Republicans are hitting their opponents hard -- below the belt, some critics say -- on personal and local issues.
Negative campaigning is hardly new, and Democrats are dishing dirt against Republicans too. But mudslinging is crucial to the Republican plan for this year's midterm elections, because the party's hold on power will probably hinge on shifting attention from the unpopular war in Iraq and other national issues that cut against them.
"When people are looking at national issues that are not breaking our way, what you want to do is focus on your opponent," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a former Republican National Committee chief of staff. "You've got to play the field's conditions. They demand very tough tactics."
Cole spelled out that approach in a recent strategy memo to House Republicans: "Define your opponent immediately and unrelentingly.... Do not let up -- keep the tough ads running right up to election day. Don't make the mistake of pulling your ads in favor of a positive rotation the last weekend."
Republican incumbents this year began running attack ads earlier than ever. But the hardest-hitting are yet to come.
"You haven't seen the majority of the negative ads yet," said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, where a staff of 10 has been deployed on opposition research.
The strategy rests on the widely held belief that negative political ads make more of an impression on voters than positive ones.
GOP consultant Terry Nelson said current voter cynicism may be particularly fertile ground for negative advertising because voters expect the worst from politicians.
"Voters are in some ways more ready to accept the negative about politicians" than the positive, Nelson said. "They often say they would like to see a more reasoned debate in campaigns and more talk about the ideas, but in fact they often respond to negative ads because they tend to find them more credible."
Republican incumbents have moved aggressively to shape early perceptions of their Democratic challengers.
Democratic strategist Peter Fenn said: "You have a blackboard that's not written on very much -- what Republicans are trying to do is write all over that blackboard in great big letters before the challengers have a chance to write on it."
In one of the most competitive House races, Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.) sent about a dozen mailings attacking Democrat Lois Murphy before Labor Day. He aired an ad in August portraying her as a fearsome liberal who wants to raise taxes. His latest ad accuses her of sending illegal campaign mailings, which she denies.
The National Republican Congressional Committee first took to the airwaves back in June. Its first television ad was against Brad Ellsworth, a Democratic sheriff who has mounted a strong challenge to Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.). The ad accused Ellsworth of neglecting his duties as sheriff because his department inadvertently released a suspected child rapist -- featured in a grainy mug shot -- while the Democrat was campaigning in Washington.
Also in Indiana, GOP Rep. Chris Chocola has been on the air for months hammering his Democratic opponent, lawyer and businessman Joe Donnelly. Chocola did not just use the standard GOP line of painting Donnelly as a tax-and-spend liberal; GOP researchers also combed through county tax records and found that Donnelly had been delinquent on his property taxes 15 times.
"Joe Donnelly wants to raise our taxes," a Chocola TV ad said in August. "Even worse, he's delinquent paying his own."
In New Mexico, Republican Rep. Heather A. Wilson tried to slow the early momentum of her Democratic challenger, state Atty. Gen. Patricia Madrid, with a tough negative ad. She attacked Madrid's performance as the state's top law officer at a time when corruption scandals spread through the state's upper echelons.
Amy Walter, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said that ad helped shift the focus of the campaign from Democrats' charges that Wilson is a rubber stamp for Bush, who is unpopular in the swing district.