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Trash talk trumps civility on US campaign trail
[WASHINGTON] Oh, the negativity. Five months before early primary voting, America's presidential race has devolved into mudslinging, with Republican Donald Trump leading the charge to the bottom by lambasting his many rivals, some of whom are taking the bait and responding in kind.
According to the mouthy mogul, Jeb Bush is "a mess," Rick Perry should be "forced to take an IQ test," and US leaders are "stupid." The front-running Trump trolls rivals and others on social media and warns that Mexico is sending "rapists" and other criminals illegally across the border.
On Tuesday, he kicked the popular Mexican-American star anchor of the top US Spanish-language television network out of his press conference, snarling "Go back to Univision."
In the all-important mission to get noticed in a sprawling field of 17 Republican candidates, shock campaigning has become a hallmark of the summer silly season of American politics.
Candidate Mike Huckabee said the Iran nuclear deal would march Israelis to "the door of the oven," while Ted Cruz called President Barack Obama the leading state sponsor of terrorism.
But what might set this year apart from others is that the most caustic jibes are coming from the billionaire leading the pack.
"I think Donald Trump's lack of civility is hurting the political process," California state assembly Republican Rocky Chavez, a 2016 US Senate candidate, told AFP.
"We have serious issues that need to be discussed," he added. "To lower the bar to calling people names is not beneficial." The amount of smack talk has surprised some observers.
"What's interesting about this election: there's never been somebody like Donald Trump who is so flagrantly uncaring about civility," said Rita Kirk, director of the Maguire Centre for Ethics & Public Responsibility at Southern Methodist University.
It is politics as reality TV, Ms Kirk said, fueled by Mr Trump's "swashbuckling, my-way-or-the-highway persona" that he cultivated on the wildly successful NBC show The Apprentice.
The Republican National Committee, worried about how trashing fellow GOP candidates and popular female and Hispanic TV personalities might hurt efforts to broaden party appeal, warned in July that the name-calling "needs to stop." It only worsened.
The vitriol serves its purpose, Ms Kirk explained, citing the "acute dissatisfaction" many Americans have with the economy, the political system and its overlords.
Many conservatives feel betrayed by Republicans who pledged to change Washington but haven't.
"When everyone is uber careful at this tender moment in their rise to political prominence, a candidate out there who is angry and expressive will get attention," she said.
Mr Trump taps into the sentiment, but his crude and often misogynistic rants raise eyebrows. He has attacked several influential Republican figures, including former Republican nominees Mitt Romney and John McCain.
WRESTLING A 'PIG'
Mr Trump knows that insults stick, and he excels at it, according to George Lakoff, a linguistics professor at University of California Berkeley and author of Moral Politics. More importantly, "Trump understands the role of competition in America," Prof Lakoff told AFP.
"Winning shows authority and commands respect - central conservative values." By blasting rivals, "Trump is saying 'Don't look like a nice guy. Look like a winner, like you are in charge.' A lot of the Republican base wants to hear that," Prof Lakoff said.
Some candidates shrug it off, hoping Mr Trump's bloom fades.
"If I comment on everything he says, my whole campaign will be consumed by it," Senator Marco Rubio told NBC.
While he has managed for now to remain above the fray, Mr Rubio became a Trump target on Tuesday, accused of being a "terrible person" for running against mentor and fellow Floridian Bush.
Mr Rubio's campaign declined to react. Others, like Senator Lindsey Graham, are fighting back.
Mr Graham called Mr Trump a "complete idiot" on Tuesday, and said if Mr Trump competed in South Carolina "I'll beat his brains out." One candidate pivoting visibly towards Mr Trump is Mr Bush.
Mr Trump relentlessly hammers Mr Bush's family pedigree, accused him of boring supporters to sleep and lured him into a battle over immigration.
After days of telling anyone who would listen that Mr Trump is "not conservative," an exasperated Mr Bush, confronted on Wednesday by a man asking about The Donald, sighed: "Do we have to talk about this guy?"
Mr Bush has a point, said assemblyman Chavez.
"If you wrestle with a pig, two things happen," the US Marines veteran said. "You get dirty, and the pig enjoys it."