WASHINGTON — Sen. Barack Obama, under persistent attack from his Republican rival, is intensifying his own negative ad campaign targeting Sen. John McCain in key battleground states.
In the last two weeks, the Obama campaign has aired at least eight new TV and radio ads accusing McCain of failing to protect U.S. jobs, favoring oil companies and turning a blind eye to the economic suffering of working-class Americans.
Many of the TV ads also prominently feature photos of McCain with President Bush.
The negative ads, running in 18 states, hew to themes that Democrats and groups allied with the party have been hitting for months. But they mark a change for the Obama campaign, which until recently concentrated its advertising money on casting the freshman Illinois senator in a positive glow.
The sharply worded ads match toughening rhetoric from Obama himself on the campaign trail.
"The conventional wisdom is that this election is going to be a referendum on Barack Obama," said Dan Schnur, a California Republican who worked on McCain's 2000 presidential campaign and now heads the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.
"His people are smart enough to realize this doesn't necessarily work to their benefit," Schnur said.
Obama's negative turn, however, runs the risk of undermining his promise to bring change to the political system. It may also compete with the candidate's other messages, namely that he is ready to be commander in chief.
GOP strategist Frank Luntz said that Sen. John F. Kerry failed to make such a case for himself as the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee.
"Kerry did an effective job of showing that Bush didn't deserve to be president," Luntz cautioned. "But 'none of the above' isn't on the ballot. And in the end, Kerry did not give voters enough of a reason to choose him."
The Obama campaign, which would not release details about the ad buys, has kept relatively quiet about the advertising, eschewing the now-standard practice of touting new ads to reporters in hopes of getting free coverage. The ads are not posted on Obama's website.
"It's revealing that Barack Obama attempts to run a campaign under the thin veil of a positive message when he has consistently shown that he's running a negative campaign," said McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds.
Bill Burton, a spokesman for the Obama camp, said the new ad campaign was "no secret," noting that the ads can be seen on YouTube.
Burton acknowledged, however, that Obama is moving away from the kind of biographical advertising he did earlier in the campaign. "Elections are about choices," he said. "What Sen. Obama is doing is laying out a very clear choice."
Some of the new ads do indeed contrast Obama's positions with McCain's, particularly on energy. The two candidates have sparred in recent months over expanding offshore drilling, which McCain favors, and more federal support for renewable energy, which Obama prefers.
But the most recent spots take direct aim at the presumptive GOP nominee, trying to paint him as a candidate out of touch with the economic struggles of many Americans.
In one ad, McCain is shown talking bullishly about the economy earlier this year, pronouncing at one point in a January GOP debate: "I don't believe we're headed into a recession."
The ad contrasts McCain's upbeat comments on the economy with footage of Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky residents talking about their economic insecurities.
"I sometimes struggle just to get the essentials, you know, the milk, the bread, the eggs," says Lauren Ahlersmeyer, a resident of Lafayette, Ind.
The ad concludes with a question projected on a dark screen: "How can John McCain fix the economy when he doesn't think it's broken?"
Another ad, which has run in Milwaukee and York, Pa., both home to Harley-Davidson motorcycle plants, attacks McCain for opposing "Buy American" legislation requiring the government to purchase U.S.-made products.
The McCain campaign, which for weeks has been mocking Obama's celebrity in its own TV advertising, has begun airing ads in battleground states attacking Obama as unready to lead and eager to raise taxes.
McCain has actually outspent Obama in 11 traditional battlegrounds, including Ohio and Pennsylvania, said Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which monitors political advertising.
But nationwide, Obama has spent about $46 million on TV advertising since June 20, about $8 million more than McCain over the same period, Tracey said.
Many political strategists expect Obama to tap his deep war chest to intensify targeted advertising.
That will be important, said Mark Mellman, a longtime Democratic strategist. "A central strategic imperative for the Obama campaign is to make sure that when people go into the voting booth in November, they are thinking about John McCain and George Bush," Mellman said.
Obama's advertising will dovetail with efforts by independent liberal groups such as MoveOn.org, which for months has been running TV ads attacking McCain in battleground states.
On Tuesday, the group kicked off a $500,000 campaign in North Carolina blasting McCain and Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole for supporting tax breaks for oil companies. Last month, MoveOn aired an ad in Ohio and Michigan criticizing McCain's support for the Iraq war.
Tracey said he was not convinced the advertising was doing much, however, noting that polls showed little movement in the race.
"I think they have just been trading shots," he said.