Campaign Sludge

NEW JERSEY, a state grappling with industrial pollution, is vying for a dubious distinction - the nation's leader in campaign pollution. The gubernatorial race between James Florio and Jim Courter - won by Mr. Florio Tuesday - was marred by an unrelenting flow of name calling and negative ``attack ads,'' including mirror TV ads depicting each man's opponent with a growing Pinocchio nose for alleged lying. Sludge advertising spilled over into New Jersey assembly races, too. But New Jersey isn't alone. Other high-profile races this fall - for governor in Virginia and mayor in New York - included large doses of negative ads.

Our distaste for negative ads isn't just a matter of decorum; politics isn't croquet (though one shouldn't sell short the importance of civility to democratic government). Attack ads and stump muggings crowd out serious discussion of issues. In recent years many politicians have been in flight from issues - the real ones, that is - which they seem to regard only as treacherous.

Negative ads aren't the only way to skirt issues. They also can be avoided by empty feel-good campaigns (``morning in America'') or diversionary red herrings (the Pledge of Allegiance).

Politicians needn't shoulder all the blame. Negative ads are used, media experts say, because they work. Despite their protestations of being turned off, many voters evidently prefer the excitement and titillation of character smears to the hard work of wrestling with difficult issues.

Similarly, the press often seems to find issues tedious. For all its faults, last year's presidential campaign was not - as the press moaned repeatedly - issueless. But Bush's and Dukakis's more thoughtful utterances were relegated to page 19 while the headlines were dominated by imagery, gaffes, and the ``horse race.''

In large part, people get the campaigns they deserve. The First Amendment makes it hard to legislate away negative campaigning. But voters can rebuke mudslinging in the polling booth.

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