GOP Presidential Race Poised for Mud-Slinging

Trailing candidates fight for support.

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Temperatures are falling, but the GOP presidential race is only heating up. With the primary season kicking off on Jan. 3 in Iowa and no runaway leader in the polls, the race is ripe for candidates go negative.

"You're going to see some campaigns try to pull last stands to re-ignite their efforts," says Ron Bonjean, a Republican political consultant.

Bonjean says Mitt Romney, arguably the race's frontrunner, is ready for a long, drawn out battle. But others – such as Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and businessman Herman Cain – will need strong finishes in the early primary states in order to keep their campaigns afloat.

[Likeability unlikely to derail Gingrich.]

And if you cannot win voters' support, sometimes the only thing left to do is destroy the support of someone else. During the early GOP debates, candidates appeared to take a team approach in ribbing Romney for 'flip-flopping' on issues. And when Texas Gov. Rick Perry was atop polls, he also focused on Romney. But with a fluid field with no one currently dominating, candidates have focused on selling their own ideas to voters during recent debates rather than tearing down their opponents.

But that may be changing.

Bachmann launched a web advertisement earlier this week criticizing her competitor's positions on various issues – Romney on abortion, Gingrich on climate change, Texas Congressman Ron Paul on Iran.

Huntsman also released a web ad this week taking on Romney for comments he made about cracking down on China's practice of currency manipulation.

The two candidates launching ad campaigns are languishing in the polls and struggling to gain traction.

[Read how fatigue leads to campaign gaffes.]

Cain also accused a Perry campaign aide of leaking to the media information about past sexual harassment allegations after the accusations were first reported. He then attacked the media for reporting the story and the credibility of the women who came forward publicly. He has denied any wrongdoing.

But John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University and an expert on the impact of negative campaigning, says even though candidates might be getting desperate, chances are the primary will not get very nasty.

"Traditionally, the nomination process has not yielded a huge number of attack ads," he says. "The differences between the candidates on the issues are pretty minor and so that makes it a little harder to attack. You will see a sharpening of knives, but we're not going to see the really sharp knives come out of the drawer until the nominee is known and faces off with President Obama."

Geer says it's when the two parties face off that the fur really flies.

In a field full of candidates, politicians are wary that if they attack an opponent, voters will also turn away from then and right into the arms of another opponent, Geer adds.

The idea that candidates competing in the same party will restrain from playing dirty was blown apart in the 2008 Democratic campaign. The contest between Hillary Clinton and Obama was so heated that many speculated the wound would never heal. Now, Clinton serves as Obama's Secretary of State.

[Perry calls for 'uprooting' of government.]

If things do get ugly, it will not likely be seen on the national level, another expert says.

"You're more likely to see that in campaigning in Iowa and beneath the radar," says Chris Arterton, professor of political management at George Washington University.

"The very fact that Iowa and New Hampshire can be so-called retail as opposed to mass marketing one on one meetings, means that you can put out the word of kind of nasty rumors and attacks and so forth in a network of people that's less visible to the media than are debates and television advertisements," he says. Politico reported earlier this week that an unsourced anti-Gingrich e-mail was already being circulated among conservatives.

Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain was the target of rumors in South Carolina during the 2000 campaign. Whispers circulated that McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child and many thought they were planted by rival George W. Bush's camp, although Bush's top aide Karl Rove denied it. Bush ended up beating McCain in the subsequent primary, 53 percent to 42 percent.