The back and forth between political candidates over “negative attack ads” has devolved over the last few election cycles into utter goofiness.
The latest ad war between Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama is typical. Sen. McCain Wednesday introduced a new TV ad that critiques Sen. Obama’s policy proposals and dings him as more celebrity than substance:

Sen. Obama’s campaign responded by complaining, then quickly launching a negative ad attacking McCain for attacking him:If you watch the ads back-to-back, you’ll notice the irony — the Obama ad is at least as much a “negative attack ad” as McCain’s.
Voters are entitled to full information. That means they should hear not only each candidate’s views, but also his or her differences with an opponent. The use of contrast ads that emphasize your strengths and critique your opponent’s policy positions, experience or ability are not “negative attack ads.” They are a service to voters.
Sen. McCain is perfectly justified in pointing out to voters that Sen. Obama opposes drilling for oil and supports tax increases. And it’s fine for Sen. Obama to complain about being attacked, but his harsh attack in response makes him look a bit inconsistent.
Though contrast ads are necessary, candidates should make every effort to be accurate and truthful in their characterization of opponents. Dirty campaigning is to mischaracterize or smear your opponent with false accusations or characterizations in an attempt to mislead voters.
For example, the night before my win in the Republican gubernatorial primary, the Arizona Democratic Party spent $100,000 calling Republican primary voters and urging them to vote against me, creating a phony “conservative” organization to falsely accuse me of supporting “amnesty” for illegal aliens. In fact, the Democrats pretending to be conservative Republicans were accusing me of taking the actual position of their own candidate in order to hurt me in a Republican primary. That’s deceptive, dishonest, and dirty. When confronted, they lied about it to the media for two weeks. When they finally admitted it, the story was almost completely ignored. And to my knowledge, the supposedly objective, hard-hitting local media never even asked Gov. Napolitano whether she approved of the dishonest tactics of her Party, or furthermore, whether she knew that the State Party she controlled was spending so much money in a dishonest attempt to affect the outcome of the Republican primary.
By contrast, our campaign produced some hard-hitting “attacks” on Gov. Napolitano. But the ads were truthful and accurate and based on statements and policy positions she had taken. While some would dispute the conclusions we drew, no factual element of our critique of the Governor was ever refuted.
Sen. McCain has already proven his willingness to challenge his supporters who stray beyond critiques of Sen. Obama into the realm of personal insults and false attacks. As this campaign progresses, the media should do a better job of explaining the difference between ads that critique or contrast, as compared to ads that are deliberately false and designed to mislead.