Ready for a candidate food fight?

There was a sadness in Jim Carville's voice in Los Angeles during the Democratic convention. The 2000 campaign had gotten too ... well, nice.

Politics should be an argument, not a discussion, said the former Clinton campaign adviser at a Monitor breakfast in Los Angeles. It should be about telling voters how the other side is wrong, desperately wrong. It should be a battle between good (us) and evil (them).

For their part, journalists had been surprised by the tone of the campaign. Many had suspected that minus real issues - things are going pretty well, after all - we were in for a real mud bath this year. The logic was simple: Can't argue about political philosophy? Call the guy a jerk. Dredge up the all-important pledge of allegiance "issue."

But since the primaries wrapped up, we have largely been witness to "Campaign 2000: The Sweetness and Light Tour." For the last five or so months, it seems the best that Messrs Gore and Bush can do in the way of trash talking is "My opponent is a nice guy, he's just misguided." Where have you gone Lee Atwater?

There is, of course, a little wistfulness in all this. Mr. Carville lives to be a junkyard dog, and many journalists would simply rather cover a barroom brawl than a dinner at Martha Stewart's. Smashed chairs and flying fists simply make for better copy than hand-printed place cards and doilies.

But all around the Potomac, the smiles are beginning to return. The changing dynamics of this race have brought with them the slightest smell of panic. And that means our elegant dinner with Martha may soon become a food fight.

The first hints of the change came last week when suddenly rats were in the news again even though "Survivor" was over. An advertisement approved by George W. Bush's campaign raised questions about Al Gore's healthcare plan. The ad was standard Republican fare, except for a split-second flashing of the word "rats" across the screen, part of the word "bureaucrats."

Democrats decried the word as a "subliminal" message meant to turn voters off to Mr. Gore - or if they were on the "Survivor" island, maybe make them hungry. And while the ad's producer denied that the message was deliberately placed in the spot, television professionals said it was basically impossible for it not to be deliberate. Regardless, the commercial was pulled.

The Gore folks are also having a bit of fun. When the Bush people attacked the vice president's cozy relationship with Hollywood, which has reclaimed its election-year designation as focus of evil in the Western Hemisphere, the Gore people were ready. They quickly shot back that George W. had served on the board of a company that produced the 1986 trash-horror classic "The Hitcher," the gory tale of a psychotic hitchhiker.

Of course, whether Bush knew anything about the movie and how much he did on the board are unanswered questions, but you can bet he wasn't involved in day-to-day operations of the company.

This may not exactly be the gloves coming off, but it is a few steps up on the nastiness scale from where we were at the end of August. And we can expect it to get worse. The package of W. debate materials mailed to the Gore campaign from Austin raises all sorts of questions.

A look at the polls shows that times are not good for W. right now, and semidesperate times call for semidesperate measures. In other words, forget all the promises about a clean campaign. There are few candidates who would rather lose a positive campaign than win a negative one.

The race may still sound clean on the surface, but in the next few weeks things will get dirty, whether it's through surrogates (like vice-presidential nominees) or anonymous leaked allegations or subliminal messages. Bush needs to change the shape of this race.

This plays into Gore's hands. The Gore camp understands negative campaigning quite well, thank you. The vice president, sitting on a lead, doesn't have to strike first, but when he hits back it will be disproportionately hard.

So here we are. It may not look like much now, just a few dinner rolls flying back and forth, but political food fights have a tendency to escalate. By the time we reach the end of this thing, we may have quite a mess on our hands.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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