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IT'S DASTARDLY. IT'S demeaning. It's destructive.

It's, well, it's politics.

Yes, folks, it's campaign season. Time to shelter the kids, avert your eyes and reach for the b.s. detector.

The candidates want to reach YOU, assuming you're one of the few remaining people who's not so confused, alienated or apathetic that you actually vote.

There are ways a candidate convinces voters he's the right guy. Among the most popular is the old stand-by, Going Negative.

Instead of saying what you'll do to make the world a better place, you pound away at the Other Guy: He's ugly, his dog smells, his lawn has weeds, his mother wears combat boots. Or, worst of all: He's not a Bills fan.

Like we said, this stuff gets ugly.

Going Negative is an American political tradition. John Quincy Adams livened things up in 1828 by calling Andrew Jackson "a savage . . . who can scarcely spell his own name."

Adams went negative -- and lost. But his fate hasn't deterred hordes of politicians in the 170 years since.

Dennis Gorski is the latest. In case you haven't turned on the TV lately, the county executive -- trailing challenger Joel A. Giambra in the polls -- started blasting away a couple of weeks ago.

The visual imagery has ranged from tombstones, for the dead folks who supposedly got health benefits on Comptroller Giambra's watch, to a sinking Titanic.

We're not going to dive deeply into it, but for the most part it's the usual political assault: Kernels of truth blown up into a popcorn basketball.

"The next thing they're going to blame me for," said Giambra, "is the assassination of McKinley."

Not likely -- although there is some question as to Giambra's whereabouts on Nov. 22, 1963.

If Giambra is surprised, he's the only one.

It's the usual story: When all else fails, go after the other guy.

Gorski is the 12-year incumbent reigning over a high-tax, no-growth county. He's trailing in the polls and suffering from a bad case of Cuomo-itis: People have grown too accustomed to his face. He's like the uncle who years ago settled into the spare room. Maybe he's not that bad of a guy, but you're ready to get him out of the house. Gorski is trying to convince folks that a wearisome uncle is better than an incompetent cousin.

The Gorski-Giambra race is a local litmus test of the $64 million political question: Do negative campaigns work?

Negative campaigns turn voters' stomachs, flaunt democracy's wormy underside and sink politicians beneath personal-injury lawyers and repo men on the Least Admired Humans scale.

But do they work?

Sure. Sometimes. Although maybe -- and here's the good news -- not as well as they used to.

Nobody admits as much, but chances are Gorski will go negative for a while, take a private poll and see if the numbers moved.

If they did, he'll keep pounding away.

I don't like negative campaigns. But at least Gorski's stuff -- although laden with distortions, half-truths and the other endearing tools of American politics -- hasn't gotten personal.

"The ads have at least some relation to (Giambra's) record," said Mike Haselswerdt, political science professor at Canisius College. "But they're purely negative, there's nothing in them that says how Gorski is better."

The big question, for Giambra and every other political target: How to deal with getting hammered?

I'm happy to report that analysts of American politics have a definitive answer: They're not sure.

Haselswerdt said Giambra should respond, before the charges fester in voters' minds. National political consultant Joe Slade White said Giambra should ignore it, at least for a while, and keep running positive ads.

If you ignore it, you keep the high ground and distance yourself from your mud-slinging opponent. You also run the risk voters will think you're Mike Dukakis -- a wimp who won't fight back.

If you respond, the charges don't have a chance to stick. But then you're playing the same game as the other guy.

"If you get too defensive, you lose your own message," said White. "Or you get into this World War I no-man's land, where you and the other guy just beat the hell out of each other."

It's a balancing act, but sometimes you can deflect the attack and still get your message out. Case in point: Ronald Reagan's "There you go again" line.

Hope for the future comes from an unlikely source: Dick Morris -- the toe-sucking, prostitute-loving political operative who got Clinton re-elected -- says voters have gotten smarter; purely negative campaigns don't work.

"If unanswered, negatives still reign," writes Morris in his book, "The New Prince." "But properly rebutted, they explode in the face of their own candidate. Voters have moved beyond (negatives)."

That's what Giambra is counting on.

"I think the voters of Erie County are smart enough to see through this," he said.

We'll see in November.

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