Political strategists have always understood that independent groups can deliver messages that the campaigns don't want to touch themselves. And that's the way it's been this year — up till now.
Some examples: Barack Obama's campaign avoided questions about John McCain's health. But Brave New PAC and the California Nurses Association waded right in. McCain's campaign didn't play up allegations about ties between Obama and Chicago militant-turned-educator Bill Ayers, but the American Issues Project and Judicial Confirmation Network did.
But now, it seems, the campaigns want to race the independent groups — all the way to the bottom of the cesspool. The election is just 30 days away, and polls show Obama solidifying a lead over McCain. The candidates' early pledges to run high-minded, issue-oriented campaigns are a dim memory, if that.
McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, took ownership of the Obama-Ayers issue yesterday, saying that Obama is "palling around with terrorists." The Republican National Committee swiftly followed with a lengthy and critical dopesheet on the Obama-Ayers story.
Palin also said Obama "is not a man who sees America like you and I see America," echoing the pitch of a recent ad by the National Rifle Association, in which a hunter asks, "Where is this guy from?" Again, subtle questions about race and ethnicity have, up to now, been left to independent players.
The McCain campaign telegraphed its punches via media leaks. Obama's campaign did not. With no fanfare, it put up an ad depicting McCain as too old to handle the job.
This isn't to suggest the independent groups will be left with nothing to say. A candidate attack ad has never deterred his or her allies from joining in.
It does make you look back a couple of months, though. Remember that McCain ad of such triviality, mocking Obama as a Britney-and-Paris type celeb?
Now, a financial meltdown and a few presidential polls later, it looks like summer foolishness.