We'll soon be at the end of the mudslinging phase of the campaigns, since candidates like to finish in their Sunday School mode. There is, however, the hallowed Washington state custom of the last-minute dirt-bomb, released around Halloween so that the victim has little time to answer. (The accelerated news cycle may have ended that tradition.)
But down-and-dirty campaigning is not going away. It is, in fact, as old as the Republic, as is nicely reprised in this survey in The Washington Post. Thomas Jefferson was one of the worst practitioners of character assassination, normally concealing his role by using captive journalists. For instance, James Callender, controlled by Jefferson, described Jefferson rival John Adams as a "repulsive pedant" with a "hideous hermaphroditical character." It was all-out, all-false, all the time.
The modern reasons for repulsive charges go beyond the obvious one that these lies tend to sow doubt and sink in among the credulous. One less-obvious reason is that outrageous remarks stir up a big public stink, require answers, and set the pundits' tongues wagging for a few days. That amplifies the message, including its subtext, and saves a lot of money in paid ads. The other reason is that sliming opponents disgusts people and reminds them how bad all politicians are, depressing the vote turnout. Republicans particularly have preferred low turnout, since it's thought that big turnout means too many Democrats at the polling booth.
A third reason for slinging mud is that our media, and the public, seem to have a bottomless ability to forgive and forget. Accordingly, conservative columnist Bill Kristol suggests that McCain and Palin should blithely drop the pit-bull attacks, since they aren't working, and revert to being "cheerful, open, and accessible" candidates. Kristol advises a quick change of costume: "At Wednesday night'ês debate at Hofstra, McCain might want to volunteer a mild mea culpa about the extent to which the presidential race has degenerated into a shouting match. And then he can pledge to the voters that the last three weeks will feature a contest worthy of this moment in our history."
Works every time, if for no other reason than the media's fondness for a new story line. And there you have the real reason the Obama lead will narrow in the last two weeks. We love our dirt. And we love even more the illusion of coming clean.