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Campaigns get low down and dirty in the mud

On TV, the crowds cheer and the candidates deliver snappy sound bites. The presidential campaign almost seems civilized.

But behind the scenes, this year's contest is a relentless, often vicious barrage of e-mails, conference calls and Web postings. The messages come not just from the Bush and Kerry campaigns, but from the political parties and the independent groups that have sprouted to hurl invective for both sides.

Most messages are aimed at journalists who cover the campaigns. Many also go to political activists, to keep them fired up about their candidates.

The trash talk flies back and forth every day. Take Wednesday, for example. Nothing special about it, just another day of what passes for high-minded discourse in the race for president.

8:17 A.M. E-mail from Kerry campaign says Wall Street investment firms would get rich on Bush's Social Security plan: "The truth is, the only people who benefit from George Bush's Social Security scheme are the special interests."

10:19 A.M. E-mail from liberal group MoveOn.Org wants its members to pressure the White House to release its "National Security Estimate" on Iraq: "President Bush has got to tell us the truth about Iraq. No weapons of mass destruction. No Saddam-al Qaida connection. The mission is not accomplished."

10:21 A.M. E-mail from Bush campaign announces new TV ad called "Windsurfing" that playfully has Kerry surfing back and forth to show he is a flip-flopper. The ad ends: "John Kerry. Whichever way the wind blows."

10:30 A.M. Responding to Kerry's Social Security allegation, Bush campaign posts on its Web site: "THE RAW DEAL: John Kerry's Record Of Higher Taxes On Social Security Benefits."

11:06 A.M. Conference call with reporters: Republican chairman Ed Gillespie suggests that CBS News conspired with Kerry campaign on the now-discredited story about a memo on Bush's National Guard service. Says Gillespie: "Many questions still remain. Was a crime committed? I believe so. Obviously, forgery is involved."

11:19 A.M. E-mail from Democratic National Committee headlined "DNC Issues Challenge to Gillespie," demands he answer five questions about Bush's Guard service, including: "What was Bush doing during the 6 months between April and October 1972 when he was not showing up for Guard duty?"

11:45 A.M. President Bush campaigns in King of Prussia, Pa. "My opponent is sending mixed signals. He has had many different positions on Iraq. Incredibly, this week he said he would prefer the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein to the situation in Iraq today."

12:10 P.M. Aboard campaign plane, Kerry senior adviser Mike McCurry tells reporters: Presidents should "provide honest information about where we are (in Iraq) and the choices we face. . . . And that's a failure on the part of President Bush."

MIDDAY Bush campaign posts "Flip-Flop Alert" on its Web site. It says Kerry has made conflicting promises about middle-class tax relief. "If John Kerry follows his own position, his own rule and his own budget, he will have to oppose the extension of the middle-class tax relief. Or, will he flip-flop on another issue?"

12:32 P.M. E-mail from the Democratic group America Coming Together quotes Republican senators who have criticized the Bush administration's effort in Iraq. Headline: "GOP Bigshots Attack Bush's Iraq "Incompetence.' "

12:45 P.M. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani at event in Orlando: "You don't windsurf about matters of war and peace. You don't go from this position to that position, and change and shift."

1:01 P.M. E-mail from Republican National Committee _ "They Said It!" _ highlights a quote in the Washington Post from a worried Kerry supporter who heard the candidate speak: "Fifteen minutes into the speech I was thinking I need to get in there and do some heavy editing. He just keeps repeating that stuff about the past and he needs to get to the future. I'm, like, panicking."

1:06 P.M. E-mail from the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank, responds to Kerry's charge that Wall Street firms would get rich under Bush Social Security plan. "What does it matter if Wall Street makes money as long as workers receive better and higher retirement benefits? Our goal should not be to impoverish Wall Street, but to provide the best possible retirement income for workers. Sen. Kerry's efforts reveal a deep-seated hostility to the American free enterprise system."

1:35 P.M. E-mail from America Coming Together criticizes Bush's visit to Pennsylvania. Headline: "Bush Visits PA to Twist his Record on Education."

1:40 P.M. Kerry addresses several hundred people, mostly senior citizens, in West Palm Beach. He says Bush's prescription drug program "pushes seniors off of Medicare, lets the drug companies raise their prices on you and prohibits you from buying less expensive drugs from Canada."

2:19 P.M. Another e-mail from Democratic National Committee responds to Gillespie's charges: "Republican allegations of a "Vast Left Wing Conspiracy' designed to expose the truth about the President's military service are laughable. No conspiracy is necessary to make clear that the president used strings to get into the Guard, missed his required physical, and failed to fulfill his duty."

3:17 P.M. E-mail from Texans for Truth, a group that has questioned whether Bush fulfilled his Guard duties, announces new ads calling on Bush to release all military records: "If he has nothing to hide about his missing year from service during the height of the Vietnam War, the only way to clear this up for voters is (for him) to sign the legal consent form and immediately make his records public."

3:39 P.M. E-mail from Kerry campaign announces "Juvenile," a new TV ad to respond to Bush's "Windsurfing" ad, which was released just five hours earlier. Says the Kerry ad: "One-thousand U.S. casualties . . . two Americans beheaded just this week. . . . The Pentagon admits terrorists are pouring into Iraq. . . . In the face of the Iraq quagmire, George Bush's answer is to run a juvenile and tasteless attack ad."

5:45 P.M. Bush campaigns in Latrobe, Pa.: "Mixed signals are the wrong signals. I will continue to lead with clarity, and when I say something, I mean it."

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.