WHAT HAPPENS to politicians when they cross into the red clay and piney woods of the South? Why do they suddenly grow fangs and claws and turn into flesh-ripping carnivores?
Whatever changes their metabolism, the '92 Democratic presidential hopefuls seem hellbent on group cannibalism.
Long before George Bush gets in the act, they're devouring their young.
Remember the economy? Remember issues? Remember New Hampshire, that island of reality where presidential wannabes debated the American future like serious semi-adults?
Forget it. As soon as they disembarked in Georgia, Florida and Texas, Democrats fell into a fit of groin-kicking, eye-scratching and rabbit-punching as phony as Wrestling USA. Or the '88 Bush campaign.
Mr. Kerrey whacks Mr. Clinton. And vice versa. Mr. Tsongas gouges Mr. Clinton. Hey, kids, it's the "Three Stooges' Dixie Tour."
Amazing. Why, just yesterday -- OK, a couple of weeks ago -- I was standing in an American Legion Hall in Manchester, N.H., with Bob Kerrey. The Nebraska war hero was relaxed, sipping a beer, so I asked what he made of Bill Clinton's Vietnam draft flap.
Mr. Kerrey smiled politely and shook his head.
"I don't want to refight the Vietnam war," said the candidate who famously lost a leg and gained a medal there. "I want to move on to real issues."
Real issues! Hear that, Dixieland? But once the Democrats crossed the Mason-Dixon line -- known as the Bubba Border -- they went berserk. And none more berserk than Mr. Kerrey. He all but put on his Navy SEALS uniform and called Clinton a draft dodger.
"I don't believe the statements he (Mr. Clinton) made -- 'I tried to get in but I couldn't' or 'Once again my draft board did this' or 'the Republicans are doing this to me,'" said Mr. Kerrey. He called Mr. Clinton's draft tale "baloney."
Then Mr. Kerrey's jugular slash: "Bill Clinton should not be the nominee . . . Republicans would open him up like a soft peanut."
Naturally, Mr. Clinton feigned confusion. Was this the high-road, hands-off-Vietnam Bob Kerrey of New Hampshire? Wasn't Mr. Kerrey sinking to the same pit-bull tactics he decries in President Bush?
Mr. Kerrey's spin doctors rationalize the '92 Democratic sweeps will sift down to a Kerrey-vs.-Clinton duel. They need to pick up a few Super Tuesday delegates. So Mr. Kerrey fired the Vietnam gun.
Why now? Easy. Democrats are in Bubbaland, where they assume Southerners are all war-loving jingoists with "America, Love It or Leave It" stickers on muddy pickups. Bubba, he sho' likes them negative ads -- just keep the words simple, y'all.
They all want to impress Bubba. So Mr. Clinton attacks Paul Tsongas, whose Southern clout is so frail it's like assaulting Bambi with a bazooka.
"The Wall Street candidate," Mr. Clinton called Mr. Tsongas. "I'm tired of hearing cold-blooded pawned off as courage."
Mr. Tsongas, proving he can play the Bubba Game, snapped, "Is Bill Clinton now the resident expert on courage?"
Then Mr. Clinton tumbled into that ancient Southern bear trap, racial controversy. He was between satellite TV interviews when an announcer mistakenly said Jesse Jackson had endorsed Tom Harkin. On tape, Mr. Clinton seems transformed into Count Dracula, the first time in his '92 travail he blew his cool.
"It's an outrage," snarled Mr. Clinton, "a dirty, double-crossing, back-stabbing thing to do."
Mr. Jackson, who plays these dramas to the hilt, was awaiting Mr. Clinton's apology. Mr. Tsongas, tsk-tsking the "angry emotional outburst," said Americans want a "president cool under fire." Super Tuesday handicappers figured Mr. Clinton damaged himself with Southern black voters.
Maybe. But black voters, with Mr. Jackson missing from a lackluster field, won't flock to the Southern primaries. Mr. Clinton's tirade against Mr. Jackson may help him with Dixie white males, a segment the Democrats have lost in every presidential election since 1964.
"This isn't a love feast," said Mr. Kerrey, explaining the down-and-dirty Democratic flailing.
In truth, pressure has squeezed the Democratic field.
Gentlemanly in New Hampshire, they've turned into Darwinian savages by the terror of competing for 1,287 delegates by March 10. No matter how many TV stations or airports they hit, church-mouse-poor Dems can't campaign in 23 states. They get rattled like Mr. Clinton or go for the quick hit like Mr. Kerrey.
In panic, they're patronizing the South. In New Hampshire, most voters wanted "substance" and "specific ideas." Now that they're in Bubbaland, the Dems whale each other with negative ads and cheap shots, the ultimate insult to the South.
Sure, Mr. Clinton can't afford to lose anywhere from the Texas panhandle to the South Carolina lowlands. But in their macho mud-wrestling, the Democrats treat Bubba like a dummy who doesn't care about jobs, the economy or the future.
George Bush, most unpopular Republican since Richard Nixon of Watergate, must be delighted.
Who needs Roger Ailes when the '92 Democrats are eager to self-destruct?
Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.