The skeptics appear to be correct. The big campaign finance news in this election cycle is the proliferation of 527 groups, named after the section of the IRS Code that authorizes them. If they receive donations from individuals, they can spend the money on any sort of issue-oriented advertising that they want to, as long as they don't advocate the election of a candidate and don't coordinate with anyone running for office.
Now, you'd probably think that allowing issue-oriented ads would be a good thing, if you're in favor of free speech and all that. (I am.) But the net result of this is that we've got an incredible proliferation of attack ads which -- up until fairly recently -- came primarily from groups that (charitably) don't like Bush.
This didn't seem to bother a lot of people -- ok, it probably did bother a lot of people, but not, I suspect, most of those who like Kerry -- until a 527 group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, ran an ad attacking Kerry. At this point, negative ads from 527 groups suddenly hit the radar screen.
Folks, we have enshrined in law a system that is designed to produce negative campaign advertising. The 527s can't say that Candidate X is good, but they sure as heck can say that Candidate Y is an evil, scum-sucking toad. The big money cut a new channel and flows freely. Should we have expected anything else?
If you'd like to read a reasonably informative article on the subject, here's one from MSNBC. Be sure to note how much money has gone to the anti-Bush groups from a relatively small number of big money donors...
(And, for my friends who live outside the U.S, are your campaign finance laws nearly this silly?)