THE first serious attempt at sleaze-slinging in this year's presidential campaign backfired, leaving the slinger splattered with more mud than the intended target. Perhaps the incident will deter further personal attacks on the candidates.
A press release issued last week by Mary Matalin, the political director of President Bush's reelection campaign, attacked Democratic nominee Bill Clinton in offensively personal terms. Among other things, it attempted to revive allegations that Mr. Clinton has engaged in extramarital affairs. The release's title captures its sneering tone: "Sniveling Hypocritical Democrats: Stand Up and Be Counted. On Second Thought, Shut Up and Sit Down!"
Evidently Ms. Matalin thought she was on a roll. A few days earlier she told a reporter that GOP operatives were not going around calling Clinton a "philandering, pot-smoking draft dodger" - thereby calling him precisely that.
Matalin is called a protege of the late Lee Atwater, the manager of Bush's 1988 campaign. Mr. Atwater was noted for a campaigning style that featured negative ads and smears of opponents (though he contritely acknowledged the repugnance of such methods before he died).
It's an article of faith among many Republican politicos that Atwater's harsh tactics worked in '88, and it has been anticipated that the Bush campaign would emulate that pit-bull style this time around.
But the American people are likely to have little tolerance for political mud fights. They are increasingly aware of the serious economic and social problems facing the country, and they want the candidates and their staffs to talk about issues, not to stoop to name-calling.
The White House repudiated the release, though Matalin has since denied she has anything to apologize for. Did the president really mean it when he earlier instructed his staff to stay away from sleaze?
The candidates will set the tone of this campaign, and they can't hide behind "deniability" in their responsibility for the acts of surrogates.