EVER since George Washington was first attacked during his reelection campaign as a ''dictator'' who would ''debauch the nation,'' mud-slinging has been part of United States politics.
But polls show Americans are increasingly fed up with such mean-spiritedness. More than a dozen states now have laws against intentionally false political ads, and others are following suit. Yet as Campaign '96 gears up, few pundits, pols, or media analysts expect the negativity to abate.
''People say they don't like negative ads, but they sure do remember them,'' says Ed Diamond, a professor of journalism at New York University.
Campaign after campaign has proved time and again that it's much easier to make people think badly of one's opponent than to make them think better of oneself.
''People are so cynical; they are much more prepared to think the worst about a candidate than the best,'' says Andy Kohut, director of the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press in Washington. ''Therefore, negative advertising is a much more effective tool.''
A 1994 study by the center found the American public was astonishingly cynical, even more so than the media. Seventy-seven percent of the public rated the honesty and ethics of Washington officials as low, compared with only 40 percent of the national media.
''It's a vicious circle,'' says Marion Just, a professor of political science at Wellesley (Mass.) College. ''The more people think poorly of politicians, the more they believe negative ads. The more they believe negative ads, the more they think poorly of politicians.''
Ms. Just says human nature also plays a part. Many people are attracted to unpleasant things that they wouldn't ordinarily seek out. For instance, a car wreck on the highway, a lurid photograph in the paper, or the O.J. Simpson murder trial on TV.
''I don't think it's inconsistent for people to be fascinated, even though they'd prefer not to have things like that thrust in front of them,'' Just says.
Some media analysts are concerned that politicians' continued willingness to exploit that morbid curiosity is undermining America's political system. But they also note that politicians aren't the only culprits.
One study of the 1992 presidential campaign found that more than half of the political advertisements on television were positive, but it was overwhelmingly the negative ads that caught the press's attention. Another study found that in speeches and appearances on talk shows, candidates spoke mostly about their stands on the issues and their own good qualities.
''A majority of what the candidates said when they weren't edited was positive, but more than 70 percent of what was shown on the nightly news clips was [them] making charges against each other,'' says Richard Noyes, the political-studies director of the Washington-based Center for Media and Public Affairs, which conducted the study.
The news media's penchant for zeroing in on the negative and controversial is well-known and often exploited by those in political campaigns.
Speechwriters know that the nasty jab at an opponent carefully planted in a speech on, say, campaign finance reform will end up on the nightly news. That's usually why it's put there.
''Almost no one has an incentive to turn down the volume and speak nicely, and that's a shame,'' says Tom Patterson, professor of political science at Syracuse (N.Y.) University.
Professor Patterson and others say that the negative media images portray a distorted view of what goes on in Washington, which in turn feeds the public's cynicism.
''The political discourse is really very different from the way it comes out in the media,'' Patterson says. ''There are a lot of level-headed people in Washington working on compromises and to find ways to better the process, but that's not considered news.''
In an effort to change those negative dynamics, more than a dozen states have passed laws in recent years that prohibit intentionally false statements in campaign ads, and other states are considering such actions.
''The climate is getting increasingly nasty,'' says New Jersey Assemblyman Munroe Lustbader. ''It discourages well-meaning people from running for office, and it makes people distrust the political process.''
This spring, the New Jersey Assembly passed by a vote of 54 to nine Mr. Lustbader's bill that would impose a prison sentence of up to six months and a fine of up to $1,000 for making intentionally false statements during a campaign. The bill currently is awaiting action in the New Jersey Senate.
Fifteen years ago, Washington became one of the first states to pass such a law. It imposes fines of up to $10,000 for deliberate falsehoods and allows judges to force campaigns to pull false advertisements.
But Washington's experience has shown that such laws have a limited impact. To avoid infringing on the First Amendment right to free speech, the laws have to be very narrowly defined.
''It requires the state to show by clear and convincing evidence that a person has published a statement knowing it was a deliberate falsehood or with reckless disregard for the truth,'' says Chip Holcomb, senior counsel for the commission that enforces Washington's law.
With such a narrow definition, it can't restrain or prohibit the kind of negative ads people complain about most: the attack ads and the deliberate distortions.
A case in point: In 1991, an initiative supporting euthanasia, known as ''Death with Dignity,'' was on the Washington State ballot. Opponents ran ads claiming that the initiative would ''allow your eye doctor to kill you.''
Washington State's attorney general brought charges against the opponents, claiming that was a deliberate misstatement of fact.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington (ACLU-W) took up the opponents' case, and successfully argued that their claim was an ''opinion,'' since you can't state a material fact about something that has not yet happened.
The judge ruled the law, as currently worded, couldn't stop anyone from expressing an opinion.
''I don't think it's a good vehicle to attack negative campaigning as a broad category,'' says Kim O'Neal, the assistant attorney general who litigated the case. ''But what it hopefully can do is prevent deliberate falsehood, or at least restrain it.''
The ACLU-W now is fighting to have the statute declared unconstitutional. It argues that the law improperly makes the government the watchdog and arbiter of truth in a political campaign. And since government officials are by nature subject to partisan pressure, the ACLU-W contends, they cannot be expected to act fairly.
''They're clearly putting the fox in the chicken house,'' says Don Pember, a professor of journalism at the University of Washington in Seattle. ''[The fox] might make a great watchdog to keep out the wolverines and the coyotes, but he's also got himself a pretty good appetite.''
CRITICS and opponents of such laws do agree on one thing: The best way to clean up the political system is for the American people to stop responding positively to all the negative ads. In 1992, there was a glimmer of hope.
Ross Perot won praise from the people and the pundits alike for running an information-oriented campaign.
Seventy-two percent of the Americans polled said they learned a lot from Mr. Perot's half hour televised ''infomercials.'' Only 40 percent, however, said they were more likely to vote for him as a result.
In the end, all the talk and good intentions usually fall prey to the goal of most political campaigns: winning.
''If you're ahead, you can afford to stay on the high road,'' says journalism professor Diamond. ''But if you're losing, you have to throw the kitchen sink and the toilet at him. This is the nature of the campaign.''