There’s an important difference between negative campaigning and dirty tricks but it already seems the two are getting confused in the media.
Negative campaigning is saying bad things about your opponent that are at least arguably true (eg Clark saying Key was like a tourist at the South Auckland markets).
Dirty campaigning is knowingly telling lies about your opponent (eg the Bush campaign’s lies about McCain in 2000 for example), making attacks on personal issues ie. something that has nothing to do with your opponent’s policies or political persona (eg the attacks on Clark for not having children), or using an unethical practice (eg. telling different audiences contradictory things).
Dirty campaigning should be condemned. Negative campaigning is valid; it is part of contrasting your case for being elected with your opponent’s. It would be better if everyone could just make a positive argument for being elected but the pubic also deserves to know about candidates’ negatives and only their opposition (and, occasionally, the media) will tel us about them. Incidentally, Key says he will not run a negative campaign but does what you hear him say meet that promise? Indeed, every time he say he won’t run a negative campaign he is purposely accusing Labour of being negative. That’s an attack from Key in itself and its usually followed by more hackneyed negative lines about the Government.
While we’re on the topic, when Helen Clark said ‘hard hats on’ to Labour supporters, contrary to what the commentariat seem to think, that did not mean ‘get ready for a dirty campaign’. It meant ‘get ready to work hard’. I can see why someone who never has anything to do with manual labouring would get it wrong; they probably equate a hard hat with a military helmet, to be worn when shrapnel is flying. But working class people know you wear a hard hat when you’re on to a building site. ‘Hard hats on’ means ‘get to work’.
[Update: I didn’t think this was necessary but appearantly it is: I’m not claiming that either side has a monopoloy on employing dirty tricks.]