Rather than wait for tonight's debate to land their verbal jabs, two Republican congressional candidates here have started disparaging each other in television ads launched this week.
After four upbeat spots, Matthew A. Doheny switched gears Sunday by airing an ad accusing opponent Douglas L. Hoffman of "taking care of himself" by taking more than $30,000 from his campaign to pay his expenses.
Mr. Hoffman fired back with a 30-second spot Tuesday accusing Mr. Doheny of supporting earmarks and using the federal bailout to his personal advantage. The two are having their first debate at 7 p.m. in the Westside Ballroom, Plattsburgh.
Darrell West, who wrote "Air Wars," a book about television advertising in political campaigns, said the recent attack ads suggest "it's still a competitive race and each side feels the need to muddy up the other side in order to do well in the election."
Negative ads, he said, often heighten the perceived negative qualities of the candidate being attacked and can be "very effective in altering the election's outcome."
Attack ads can backfire on candidates. But Mr. West, who also is vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said if both candidates go negative, researchers have learned that voters view it as "a wash in terms of blame."
Content also is important, he said.
"Voters are more tolerant of negativity in terms of substantive issues, because they view disagreement on the issues as part of campaigning," Mr. West said. "What they are less tolerant of is going negative on background or personal characteristics. They're more likely to view a personal attack as hitting below the belt."
In Mr. Doheny's ad, the candidate notes his opponent "pocketed" $6,689 for mileage and expenses, paid himself $3,211 on loans he made to his congressional campaigns, and paid $9,071 to rent an office and bedrooms for campaign staffers at Spruce Lodge, a bed-and-breakfast owned by his wife, Carol. He also directed $11,367 to two of his companies.
Similar to many other attack ads, the facts are true but don't tell the whole story.
Mr. Hoffman sought and received $11,836 in reimbursements from his campaign for hotels, meals, parking, tolls and mileage.
Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, said it's common to see federal candidates paying themselves back for these types of expenses.
"You definitely do see it with some frequency," he said. "This wouldn't jump out."
Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, has been reimbursed $18,559 from his two congressional campaigns for travel, food and cell phone expenses.
Mr. Levinthal said Mr. Hoffman's decision to collect interest on his personal loan to the campaign was "unusual."
"In many more cases, a candidate is not going to earn interest off a loan," he said. "What might be legal doesn't necessarily mean it's common."
Robert K. Kelner, who heads the election and political law practice at Covington & Burling, Washington, D.C., said last month that Mr. Hoffman's 7.5 percent interest rate is not exorbitant in comparison with the rate a bank likely would charge on a loan to a political campaign.
Mr. Doheny and Mr. Owens have lent their campaigns money, but have not sought interest.
As for the bills paid to Mr. Hoffman's two companies, the campaign gave $7,975.72 to Dragon Benware Crowley, an accounting firm at which the candidate is a managing partner.
Robert H. Ryan, Mr. Hoffman's spokesman, said most of that money paid the salaries of up to seven of the accounting firm's staffers who helped Mr. Hoffman in the early days of his first campaign as well as for processing the campaign's payroll.
Christian Hilland, a public affairs specialist at the Federal Elections Commission, said campaign committees are allowed to rent part of an office building owned or leased by a candidate, as long as the charge is no more than fair market value.
Mr. Ryan said Mr. Hoffman's wife charged campaign staff a reduced rate to stay at her bed-and-breakfast at Lake Placid. Mrs. Hoffman is listed in her husband's finance report as making a $1,000 in-kind contribution — the difference, the campaign said, between the market rate and the rate charged.
In Mr. Hoffman's ad, the narrator makes misleading claims about Mr. Doheny's position on earmarks and bailouts.
The ad says, "Ending wasteful earmark spending? Sorry. Doheny said everyone else should stop first."
Mr. Doheny is opposed to taking earmarks and said last week that he has not changed his position. He sounded less certain when he told the Adirondack Daily Enterprise in April that he would not "unilaterally disarm" until the earmarking system could be abolished.
While noting Mr. Hoffman's opposition to the federal bailouts of financial institutions, the ad says Mr. Doheny's "firm invested in mortgages you had to bail out."
Fintech Advisory bought 36 million shares of Countrywide in late June 2008, about one month after Mr. Doheny joined the investment fund and five days before the troubled lender was bought out completely by Bank of America. Bank of America received $45 billion in federal government money, but it was not because Fintech invested in Countrywide.
Bank of America repaid its original bailout to the government in December. Mr. Doheny opposed the federal bailouts.
Mr. Doheny's duties at Fintech include assessing whether a troubled company is worth investing in, so he does have an impact on his firm's stock purchases. Alison M. Power, his spokeswoman, would not say whether her candidate worked on the acquisition of Countrywide shares, saying it was proprietary information.