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In this political season, what constitutes a negative ad? Most candidates have at various times pledged to refrain from using personal attack ads. At some point, most have strayed from that pledge, somehow invoking a new axiom: two wrongs make a right.

Vice President Gore recently took the pledge, for the umpteenth time, saying he won't say anything negative about Gov. George Bush. Then came Bush's ad dredging up the old "inventing the Internet" story and the Buddhist temple affair. Of course, Gore never said he invented the Internet, and Attorney General Janet Reno has for the third time refused to appoint an outside counsel to investigate the Buddhist temple question.

In the ad, Bush concluded, "There's Al Gore reinventing himself again." All of which prompted Gore, referring to Bush's lack of specificity on the issues, to say that the governor "should put up or shut up." They still can't resist the negative.

Consider the following five categories, which are commonplace today.

Use outright personal slurs. For example, State Republican Chairman William Powers' fund-raising letter called Hillary Clinton "cold-blooded and hot-headed" and denounced her as "shrill and scheming" without offering any evidence. Rick Lazio, although he signed the letter, disclaimed responsibility.

Have someone else do your dirty work. Deny responsibility for an ad produced by people unrelated to the campaign, but obviously with the blessing of the campaign. Bush disclaimed responsibility for an ad run by his Texas millionaire friends, featuring a personal attack against Sen. John McCain in the primary campaign.

Say an opponent voted against a certain bill, when he actually favored a stronger bill or voted against it because of other unwanted issues tacked onto it. This is a common occurrence in local and national elections, and is no less negative than an outright negative ad.

Imply that a vote or position taken by an opponent is current, when it was taken years ago. For example, the Democratic charges about Dick Cheney's votes against Head Start and other issues.

Play "he started it." This should no longer be an excuse. Defend the charge without recrimination and move on. Resist the temptation to start another cycle of negativism.

This is not to say an opponent's voting record and personal views on the issues are not fair game. Nobody objects to a point-by-point recitation of an opponent's views, if it is accurate and accompanied by one's objections to them.

You will notice that Bush upped his negative remarks and ads when he found himself even, or behind, in the polls around Labor Day, after having a comfortable lead for months. Pundits say that was a good move. I cling to the belief that it was not.

TV analyst Mark Shields recently stated that Bush can win only if he remains relatively smirk-free from now until Nov. 7. Bush's tongue-in-cheek remarks of late indicate he's not heeding Shields' advice. On the other hand, Gore must rein in his tendency to be dismissive of Bush's proposals in a most demeaning way.

Is it too much to ask that the candidates for president set an example for the rest of the country by running election campaigns devoid of negativity? Maybe next time.

RICHARD A. KAMPRATH, retired from Marine Midland Bank, lives in the Town of Tonawanda.
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