WASHINGTON – Name-calling is a winner this campaign season. By a landslide.
In Illinois, dueling political wordsmiths long ago cast the Senate race as a choice between a "mob banker" and a "serial liar."
The rivals are more generally known as Alexi Giannoulias, the Democrat, and Rep. Mark Kirk, the Republican. One of them will soon trade in his label for another: the distinguished senator from Illinois.
Then there's Connecticut, and a statement the Democratic National Committee sent around referring to the Republican Senate candidate as Linda "crotch-kicker" McMahon. Asked about his choice of words, spokesman Brad Woodhouse said in an e-mail: "Well — her opponent ran that ad ... showing her doing it." She is a former executive of World Wrestling Entertainment.
In the current election environment, calling an opponent extreme evidently isn't sufficient. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's latest television commercial attacks Republican challenger Sharron Angle as "too extreme."
Political insults are as old as America itself, morphing into ever-new forms as television, the Internet, bloggers and Twitter replaced more technologically primitive forms of communication.
Then, as now, they were intended to render a target loathsome.
"(James) Garfield has shown that he is not possessed of the backbone of an angleworm," said Ulysses S. Grant, one president speaking ill of another.
William McKinley "has no more backbone than a chocolate eclair," said Theodore Roosevelt, speaking of a man whom he served as vice president. Perhaps that partnership — and the fact that Roosevelt moved into the White House when McKinley died — led him to add that he had twice voted for the man he derided.
But as the technology has become less primitive, name-calling seems more so.
Instead of attacking a politician's views, many critics now choose to call the politician names and leave it at that.
As in Kentucky, where Republicans recently aimed a sour shout-out at Jack Conway. The Democrat running for the Senate is "a mudslinging liberal trial lawyer," they said. If you're keeping score at home, that's three separate insults in a single phrase.
Hypocrisy is also in this year.
Or at least allegations of it.
When Connecticut's Richard Blumenthal aired his first television commercial of the fall campaign, the Republican Senate campaign committee swiftly announced that his "hypocrisy is astonishing."
The same idea is in the Democratic playbook.
"How do you spell hypocrite? Toomey," read the headline of a recent Democratic attack on the Republican running for the Senate in Pennsylvania.
True, not everyone may wish to engage in this type of name-calling.
But in the Illinois Senate race, it seems everyone already has.
For weeks now, Republicans have been calling Giannoulias a "mob banker." In April, federal regulators shut down his family's Chicago bank after it failed to raise new capital. Separately, the Chicago Tribune has reported that the bank in previous years had lent large sums to convicted felons Michael "Jaws" Giorango and Demitri Stavropoulos.
Then it turned out that Kirk, a veteran of 21 years in the Navy reserves, claimed he won an award that went to his entire unit. And a letter from his office said erroneously that he served in the first Gulf War. He referred to taking part in the invasion of Iraq although he remained stateside. He has also said his reserve work sometimes includes running the Pentagon war room, even though it does not.
The phrase "serial liar" was born, courtesy of the Democrats.
Sometimes, the name-calling is intramural, rather than across party lines.
Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum recently referred in a statement to his Republican rival for governor as "career fraudster Rick Scott." Arizona Sen. John McCain aired an ad not long ago calling GOP primary opponent J.D. Hayworth "a huckster."
In Georgia, one Republican candidate for governor, Karen Handel, said the other needed to "put on big boy pants."
Memorable, for sure. But effective?
Former Rep. Nathan Deal's choice in trousers seemed fine with Georgia GOP voters. He won the primary.