WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It's nasty out there, with political candidates and outside groups flooding the airwaves with brutal and increasingly personal attacks calling their opponents cheats, liars and kooks -- or worse.
Negative campaigning is a time-honored tradition, but the sheer volume and personal focus of the ads before Tuesday's elections, fueled by record-breaking spending and a polarized political climate, has made the deluge seem heavier.
In Illinois, an ad details a Democrat's "shady mob ties." A West Virginia Republican "puts his profits before our people." An Arizona Republican is a "slumlord" who preys on foreclosed homeowners.
Democrats implied a South Dakota Republican's repeated traffic violations made her a threat to children. "Next time you send your kids to school, prepare them," the ad warns over footage of children at a school crosswalk.
"It's more brutal than ever," said Democratic consultant Dane Strother. "There is more money in the system than ever before, and the ads are more negative and more intense and more constant than ever before."
The barrage of negative ads will reach a climax in the next few days, before an election on Tuesday that is expected to give Republicans control of the House of Representatives and perhaps even the Senate.
The sour voter mood that marked the 2010 election has been reflected in its campaign ads, with Democrats leading the shift toward more personalized attacks.
Fighting to save their majorities, Democrats turned more often to personal attacks to discredit their rival and try to keep the election from focusing on President Barack Obama and unpopular policies like healthcare reform, analysts said.
"Democrats have an interest this year in going after personal characteristics -- in part to draw attention away from the unfavorable issue environment," said Erika Franklin Fowler of Wesleyan University, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project that tracks political advertising trends.
One of every five Democratic attack ads in this cycle has focused on the personal characteristics of Republicans, up from 12 percent in 2008, the Wesleyan study found, while Republicans have more often focused their negative ads on policy issues.
Both parties are frequent users of the negative attack, however, which dates back more than two centuries to when the founding fathers traded allegations about their mistresses or children born out of wedlock.
The modern-day version is only slightly more civil. Teams of researchers in both parties comb through transcripts, tax records, business deals and court documents for a kernel of information they can spin into an attack.
"He was dishonest when he sold us a car, I'm sure he'd be dishonest in Congress," an Ohio voter tells the camera in an ad blitz against Republican House candidate Tom Ganley that focused on complaints and lawsuits against his car dealership.
"He's just too dangerous," a Colorado voter says in a Democratic ad about Republican Senate candidate and Tea Party favorite Ken Buck. "Buck said he'd tear up the Constitution," another voter says.
Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid's fierce re-election fight in Nevada against another Tea Party Republican, Sharron Angle, produced a blizzard of negative ads. "Sharron Angle says the unemployed are spoiled," a Democratic ad said.
Angle said Reid was out of touch and "living large" in Washington's Ritz-Carlton. Reid, another Angle ad says, is "the best friend an illegal alien ever had."
Sometimes humor is used to get across the message. In Louisiana, supporters of a Democratic Senate candidate are portrayed as greeting shadowy illegal immigrants who cross the border through a hole in a fence with a "welcome" sign, a marching band and a chauffeured limousine ride.
Candidates walk a fine line with the most hard-hitting ads, which fire up partisans but can turn off independents. Democratic Senate candidate Jack Conway has seen a sharp drop in support in Kentucky after raising doubts about Republican rival Rand Paul's religious faith.
The ad raised allegations about Paul's activity at Baylor University in a student group that questioned the Bible, mocked Christianity and worshiped a false god named "Aqua Buddha."
"Candidates who are behind at the end reach -- and sometimes they overreach," Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri said of Conway's ad on MSNBC.
Academics disagree on the effectiveness of negative advertising, but political operatives say they work.
"The day negative ads no longer work we'll quit running them," Strother said. "We expect our opponents will explain our foibles and hiccups, and we're going to do the same to them."
(Editing by Vicki Allen)