WAYNE PARENT was relaxing with friends after work at Louisiana State University on Aug. 3 when the topic changed to a new "attack" memo by the Bush presidential campaign.
"My friends really reacted negatively, and I was stunned by it," Dr. Parent says. "It makes the Bush campaign look a little cheap. These were low blows."
What shocked them was the newest memorandum distributed to the press by Mary Matalin, deputy campaign manager of the Bush-Quayle campaign. It referred to Gov. Bill Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, as "Slick Willie." It recalled accusations of marital infidelity. And it described Mr. Bush's foes as "Sniveling, Hypocritical Democrats."
Hours later, under orders from the White House, Ms. Matalin apologized. "I regret ... the tone," she said, but added: "I stand by my criticism of the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party for their unprecedented hypocrisy...."
Like a lawyer who scores his point before his opponent objects, Matalin had, in a single memo, revived such topics as Governor Clinton's use of marijuana while a college student, made fun of his eating habits (an affinity for Wendy's hamburgers and Dunkin' Donuts), and accused Clinton of mudslinging.
Yet even in the Southern heartland of Reagan-Bush country, analysts warned that this type of campaign - in the midst of economic hard times - could backfire.
Parent, who is a political scientist, worries that the phrases used in Matalin's memo "don't sound professional, or very civilized. I don't think it plays very well," even in a state where Mr. Bush has some of his strongest support.
On the other side of Dixie, Earl Black, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina, had a similar appraisal.
"It looks desperate," he says. "I guess they're very worried that Clinton and Gore [US Sen. Albert Gore Jr., the Democratic vice-presidential candidate] are so far ahead now that they need to work on the negatives."
SUCH attacks are a big mistake at this juncture, Dr. Black says. "It seemed quite ludicrous. The shrillness of it, the lack of finesse, and then backing down. It just creates an impression that the Bush campaign is floundering around."
Black says it is far more important for Bush, at this juncture, to put forward a positive agenda for the next four years.
The country is hurting economically, and it wants answers, not attacks, he says.
Clinton, who was relaxing for two days in Little Rock, broke his silence to comment on the memo. He retorted: "If you don't have a record to run on, and you don't have a vision to offer the American people, if you can't lift peoples' spirits and improve their conditions and you desperately, desperately, desperately want to stay in power, what else do you have to do?"
As for the specifics of the Matalin memo, he shrugged them off as "nickel and dime stuff."
What did trouble him, Clinton said, were Bush's comments over the weekend that Clinton's health-care proposals would have "the efficiency of the House post office and the compassion of the KGB."
Clinton retorted: "The very idea of comparing them ... is amazing. It's an act of desperation by an administration that, for 12 years, has ignored the health-care needs of the American people."
Professor Parent says the unfortunate part of this for Bush is that it takes away from parts of the president's message that might be popular with voters.
The term-limits issue, for example, could help Bush cement his relations with conservative and moderate voters by calling for the removal of long-time congressmen who have abused their privileges in Washington.
Yet Matalin's actions effectively drowned out Bush's own campaign speeches as he stumped across the South early this week.
Her three-page memo was written in the form of a multiple-choice quiz with six major categories. It was headlined: "Sniveling Hypocritical Democrats: Stand up and be counted - On second thought, shut up and sit down!"
THE first paragraph began: "Today, the Bush/Quayle campaign provides Slick Willie with a little `Holier than Thou' Sunday puzzle. Do this one before your crossword puzzle, Bill. It's real easy...."
At one point, in reference to the infidelity charges, the memo asked: "Which campaign had to spend thousands of taxpayer dollars on private investigators to fend off `bimbo eruptions'?"
Later it called the Clinton election effort "your lower-than-a-snake's-belly campaign."
All of this makes the upcoming Republican National Convention more important than ever, Parent says. "It will have to do wonders."