By David Jackson, USA TODAY
Presidential campaigns have never been for the faint of heart, but this one may be headed to the negative hall of fame, throwing around words such as "hate" and "unhinged."
The attacks between President Obama and Mitt Romney have become so ugly they are drawing criticism of their own. "I don't recall a presidential race that has escalated to this level quite so quickly," said former representative Martin Frost, D-Texas.
Tensions have been growing between the Obama and Romney campaigns for months but escalated this week.
Vice President Biden, criticizing Republican deregulation policies, told a crowd in Virginia on Tuesday that the Romney approach would "put y'all back in chains."
During a speech in Ohio, Romney said Biden's comments reflected "an angry and desperate presidency." He added, "Mr. President, take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago."
That drew this retort from Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt: "Governor Romney's comments tonight seemed unhinged and particularly strange coming at a time when he's pouring tens of millions of dollars into negative ads that are demonstrably false."
Romney did not back off Wednesday, telling CBS This Morning, "The president's campaign is all about division and attack and hatred - unhinged would have to characterize what we've seen from the president's campaign."
Negative campaigns are as old as elections themselves.
Today's candidates, however, have issues previous elections did not. One is money, a record amount of which figures to be poured into this year's presidential race as outside groups are allowed to spend unlimited amounts.
The Internet - particularly Twitter, Facebook and other social media - allows attacks and counterattacks to travel at nearly the speed of sound.
Mickey Edwards, a Republican former congressman from Oklahoma, said the more traditional media aren't blameless. They are "really playing up the nastiness," he said.
Campaigns use negative ads to rally their base voters, but they could also wind up suppressing the vote from independents who could decide a close race, Frost said.
Edwards, author of a new book, The Parties Versus The People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans, said elections have been even nastier at the congressional and state levels. Improvement would require basic changes to the system, he said.
One of his proposals is to change the way congressional districts are drawn so fewer of them are overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican. He recommends ending "closed" primary systems in which only party members can vote, often elevating more hard-line candidates.
There is one big obstacle to ending negative campaigns, he said: Practitioners believe they win elections.