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Ellen Goodman: Rip-apart campaign conflict is now the norm in politics

COLUMBUS, Ohio — With luck I'll be out of here before the wolves get me. It's been that kind of week. I left the relatively placid environs of Massachusetts — if you don't count the Red Sox — for a trip on assorted bankrupt airlines through assorted undecided states.

Here in what is ominously called "ground zero" of this campaign, the airwaves are so full of ads that I am tempted to end every conversation with an Ohioan by saying, "I'm Ellen Goodman and I approve this message."

Ads to the right. Ads to the left. "John Kerry and the liberals in Congress" versus "George Bush and the right-wing Republicans." Some $57 million is being spent to win the votes of Ohio's undecided voters, a cohort so small that it would be cheaper to pay their kids' college tuitions.

Now the Bush folks are letting loose a pack of snarling wolves — one of whom looks a lot like Dick Cheney — to deliver the warning that if Kerry wins, the terrorists will get you and your Little Red Riding Hood, too. The Democrats are responding with an ad featuring Bush as an ostrich with his head in the sand while a Kerry eagle soars above.

Have the donkey and the elephant evolved into a wolf and an ostrich?

It's not exactly a news bulletin that we've slid down the emotional food chain to servings of anger and fear. This year you don't just take sides, you sign blood oaths. About 70 percent of Republicans strongly approve of Bush, while 68 percent of Democrats strongly disapprove. A group describing itself as "Softer Voices" ran an ad showing schoolchildren playing in a field while the narrator warns of terrorism.

I am not shocked by attack ads, although that label seems rather benign for these 30-second slasher movies that would make any parent long for a V-chip. I remember Lyndon Johnson's "daisy ad" in 1964. I remember "the Russian bear in the forest" in 1984. No one from Massachusetts will forget the Willie Horton ads of 1988.

The difference is that the attack ad is no longer the extreme voice. It's the dominant voice. It is the sound of politics. Even a genuinely emotional and thoughtful event such as the appearance of Dana Reeve with John Kerry in the elegant Athenaeum here is soon drowned out by the yell.

Ten years ago, anger was the sound of right-wing talk radio, the medium of combat politics. That was also "The Year of the Angry White Male." Since then the number of opinion-hurling shows on cable TV has exploded. Every issue is covered with maximum aggression and minimum ambivalence whether the subject is same-sex marriage, Iraq or Scott Peterson. It's high-decibel, low-nuance infotainment. It took comedian Jon Stewart to call it right on "60 Minutes" when he said, "You know, it is what has become rewarded in political discourse — the extremity of viewpoint, because people like the conflict. Conflict, baby. It sells. 'Crossfire.' 'Hardball.' 'Shut up! You shut up!' "

I don't know whether the politicians or the talk show hosts began this round, especially since there has been a revolving door between politics and the media. But anger is the tenor of public debate now, whether on radio or television, in books or in ads. It's how we talk in public and in e-mail.

This year it seems that citizens behave like an audience expecting candidates to sound like guests on the food-fight shows. When the Swift Boat ads mauled Kerry and he didn't immediately strike back, it was actually seen as an indication that he wasn't tough enough.

Both sides are not equally guilty. Any fair, fact-checked, decibel-monitored study will award Bush's team the cup for fear-mongering. But when Kerry hoped that terrorism could be reduced to a "nuisance," Bush set upon him like a pack of wolves. When Bush said our safety from terrorism was "up in the air," Kerry swooped down from his lofty eagle's perch. In fact they agree on the elusiveness of security, but neither can admit it.

Darrell West, a political scientist at Brown and author of "Air Wars," says that in 2004, "the ads are angrier. The talk shows are angrier. On the best-seller lists, extremist books sell the best. People argue, and they don't discuss."

Then he pauses for the bottom line, "Ultimately, someone will have to govern. After Sherman marched through Georgia there was still a country to run."

Sherman through Georgia. Bush and Kerry through Ohio. Welcome to the scorched earth campaign.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is