Watch the political advertising in Massachusetts: Elizabeth Warren, the leading Democratic Senate candidate in Massachusetts, either "sides with extreme left" or has a history of being too cozy with Wall Street. Or Republican freshman Sen. Scott Brown, whom she hopes to defeat next year, is portrayed as an enemy of the environment.
Outside groups on both sides are spending millions of dollars on the race, highlighting the national prominence of the fight over the seat held for nearly 50 years by the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. But the level of spending also foreshadows the role that such groups, including special political action committees, will play in many of next fall's big political matchups.
The flood of money and ads from outside the state is expected to surge as the Warren-Brown race intensifies. "Massachusetts is at the end of the spear of what will be the big trend and the big story of 2012," said Ken Goldstein, president of Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks spending on political ads.
Super PACs have been showing their strength in marquis Senate races. The Supreme Court, in a trio of decisions capped by the landmark Citizens United case in 2010, eased restrictions on the use of corporate money in political campaigns and paved the way for such spending. Massachusetts is front and center, with the conservative Crossroads GPS spending $1.1 million on one spot casting Warren as aligned with radical elements of the Occupy Wall Street movement and another that has her siding with Wall Street bankers.
Crossroads GPS is an affiliate of American Crossroads, a group with ties to Karl Rove, a top political adviser to President George W. Bush. The groups spent more than $38 million to defeat Democrats in the 2010 midterms, raising money from large donors, including many whose identities remain unknown.
Crossroads GPS was by far the largest and most influential super PAC in that campaign year. Last month, one Crossroads ad used spliced images of Warren with rowdy Occupy Wall Street protesters to claim that she "sides with extreme left" protesters who "attack police, do drugs and trash public parks."
Warren at one point said her philosophies provided the intellectual underpinnings for the Occupy movement, but she has backed off a bit, saying she supports the movement but that the protesters must follow the law.
A second Crossroads ad then painted Warren as being too cozy with Wall Street when she headed a congressional panel that oversaw the Treasury's handling of the $700 billion financial industry bailout, a charge Warren has dismissed as ridiculous given her background as a consumer advocate and leading critic of many Wall Street's practices.
The attacks prompted Warren to spend about $1 million on her first TV campaign ad, in which she says: "Before you hear a bunch of ridiculous attack ads, I want to tell you who I am."
Warren is an especially inviting target for Republicans because many voters don't know much about her, which Anthony Corrado, a campaign finance expert at Colby College in Maine, said explains why these groups have become active at such an early stage of the campaign. "The first information can often have a powerful influence," he said.
Outside groups have also gone after Brown. The League of Conservation Voters and the League of Women Voters have spent nearly $3 million on separate ad campaigns accusing Brown of casting anti-environmental votes. Both groups have also run ads against Democrats in other states.
The League of Women Voters' ad rapped Brown for voting with other Senate Republicans to ban the Environmental Protection Agency from controlling gases blamed for global warming. It showed a child breathing through an oxygen mask and urged Brown to "protect the people and not the polluters." Brown complained that the ad was "political demagoguery."
One spot by the League of Conservation Voters slammed Brown for siding with "big oil" and voting "repeatedly against protecting our environment and public health." He has denounced that ad as a distortion.
The League of Conservation Voters said Brown scored a zero on the group's national environmental report card.
The early wave of attack ads has hurt both candidates, a recent University of Massachusetts-Lowell/Boston Herald poll found. The percentage of voters who said they had an unfavorable view of Brown rose from 29 percent to 35 percent between late September and early December. Those viewing Warren unfavorably increased from 18 percent to 27 percent.
Brown wants third-party groups to pull their negative commercials. Warren draws the line at unfair attack ads but defends the rights of political action committees and other independent groups to run ads.
Such talk won't stop outside groups from swarming the airwaves with negative ads, however.
"This is just a harbinger of things to come," said Corrado.