A genteel contest, but can it last?

The presidential contest has been unusually collegial, but next week's

So far, Election 2000 has been something of a "gentleman's campaign," a departure from the vitriol and combativeness that marked some recent presidential contests.

Sure, candidates have lobbed a few grenades, but the attacks were mostly policy-oriented, not personal. Rivals have adhered to a rather courtly custom of referring to one another as "a good man" or "a friend."

Some see the new civility as a fragile campaign trend. To others, it's an effort by this year's crop of candidates to demonstrate "character." Either way, the run-up to next Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire will put this resolve to the test, as contestants feel intensified pressure to distinguish themselves from their opponents.

If hard-edged words break out with any regularity, New Hampshire voters will also become the electorate's sounding board on "going negative." Even so, many experts expect the rhetoric to stop short of the near-nuclear levels of previous years.

"It's been unusually genteel this year - quite urbane," says Roderick Hart, a government professor at the University of Texas in Austin. Overall, he says, there's a lot of "positive momentum" to keep campaigns more civil.

The biggest pressure is on Democrat Bill Bradley, the former senator whose lower-than-expected showing in Iowa's caucuses puts his high-minded, no-attack strategy into question.

Already he has enlisted Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and Nicola Tsongas, widow of Massachusetts senator and former presidential candidate Paul Tsongas, to mount sharp criticisms of his opponent, Vice President Al Gore. Mr. Bradley's evolving strategy is a classic one: Let surrogates do the dirty work.

Yet Bradley, more than most, is in a tough spot. Because he has touted "a different kind of campaign" that's above petty attacks, he risks being seen as a hypocrite. But if he doesn't act, his insurgent bid for the nomination could be finished fast.

On the Republican side, Texas Gov. George W. Bush is preparing for attack from two directions. Alan Keyes and Steve Forbes will hit him from the conservative side. Sen. John McCain comes at him from the reformist side. Experts expect it to feel hot under the GOP tent, and soon.

Yet one rationale for restraint is that no-holds-barred ads - the mechanism most often used to deliver a sting - sometimes inflict more damage to the attacker than the target. Nearly 40 percent of New Hampshirites say they would never vote for Mr. Forbes - a finding pollsters attribute to the armada of attack ads he unleashed during the 1996 primaries against Bob Dole.

"Guys still tell us about how they'd be watching a football game and a Forbes ad would come on, so they'd switch channels, and there he was again," says Dick Bennett of American Research Group in Manchester, N.H. "People couldn't escape it."

By contrast, negative numbers for other major candidates are much lower than Forbes's are. Only about 20 percent say they wouldn't vote for Mr. Bush, Mr. McCain, or Mr. Gore. Just 13 percent wouldn't vote for Bradley.

"Those numbers are unheard of at this stage [of the campaign]," says Mr. Bennett. The negatives are usually much higher, he says. Right now, most people like most of the candidates - a testament to how civil this season has been.

That's why the next week of campaigning is expected to be harsh: Candidates will try to woo voters by illuminating the opposition's faults in an effort to drive up his negative numbers.

To many political observers, this is the natural evolution - a part of defining differences between candidates. Not all comparisons, they caution, should be dubbed "negative."

Even so, candidates - especially Republicans - know there's good reason to take the gloves off only halfway. One of their lessons of the 1996 presidential race was not to violate President Ronald Reagan's so-called 11th Commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican."

That year, belly-punch attack ads flowed from both Messrs. Forbes and Dole. But they only ended up hobbling Dole in the general election, which he lost to Bill Clinton.

This year, being civil appears to be a part of Bush's strategy. "It fits into his character argument - that he's a nicer, gentler leader," says Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli.

Finally, the change in tone this year may stem from the nation's weariness after all the exposure to Mr. Clinton's personal shortcomings. As a result, candidates are not jumping on allegations that Bush may have used cocaine years ago or that Gore may have smoked marijuana extensively in the distant past.

In all, observers say, these factors point to a long-term uptick in campaign civility. But for the short term? New Hampshire, perhaps, will tell.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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