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Candidates get aggressive, but civilly

Five weeks before the primaries begin, presidential contenders are taking some substantial swipes at one another.

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Five weeks before the Iowa caucuses, the gloves are coming off in the 2008 presidential race.

In the top tier, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are attacking each other on their experience levels and healthcare plans. John Edwards, a close second in Iowa polls behind the top two, is pounding hard on Senator Clinton's foreign-policy record and years as a Washington insider.

At the top of the Republican pack, Mitt Romney and Rudolph Giuliani are going after each other on immigration, taxes, crime, and values. Fred Thompson is going after Mike Huckabee on immigration and taxes. John McCain is claiming he's more electable than both Mr. Romney and Mr. Giuliani.

And the candidates are naming names. Gone are the genteel references to "my opponent."

What's surprising is not that the rising intensity is happening – all campaigns tend to be about what candidates believe is positive about them and negative about the other guy (or gal). It's that, for the most part, the debates are over substance, not below-the-belt attacks.

"The level of it isn't different from the past; if anything, it's highly civilized and substantive," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. "This is engagement on issues, these are things that matter."

What's new in this presidential cycle is the timing – and the interjection of the holidays into the final stretch of pre-Iowa and New Hampshire campaigning. The first nominating contest, Iowa, will take place earlier in January than ever – Jan. 3, 16 days earlier than the 2004 caucuses. The New Hampshire primary is just five days later.

The challenge for candidates will be how to campaign during and around the holidays – and how to keep stressing their contrasts with opponents – without irritating voters.

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