DENVER -- It was bound to happen, but for a while there it appeared that the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination might stay on the high road. After all, all the Democrats were working overtime reminding voters of Willie Horton and warning them to be on the lookout for more of the same from George Bush this year. Certainly they would not take the low road and deprive themselves of a juicy issue.
Alas, it was all too good to be true. Not that any of the Democrats has now stooped to the level of the Willie Horton caper of 1988. But in the past week, whether out of natural perversity or just the desire to cut an opponent down to size, it became a negative free-for-all.
Early on, Sen. Tom Harkin vowed he would never criticize any of his opponents. But as he saw his campaign failing, he did just that. And former Gov. Jerry Brown ranted and raved against the others as willing accomplices to the corruption of the process by big money. But neither of them crossed the line into personal attacks.
It fell to the other three -- Sen. Bob Kerrey, Gov. Bill Clinton and former Sen. Paul Tsongas -- to show the way to deeper depths of campaign abuse, out of campaign weariness, frustration or increasing personal animosity, or all three.
First there was Kerrey, after saying Clinton's draft record should not be an issue, going South and saying Clinton was such damaged goods that he could not be elected. Kerrey cast himself as party savior, but if his words helped his own struggling cause against Clinton, so be it.
Clinton, defending himself, resorted to one of the oldest tricks. He accused Kerrey of "espousing the very tactics for which he criticizes George Bush" and using the divisive Vietnam War to split the country again. So far, OK.
But then Clinton said if Kerrey were the nominee, Bush would certainly remind voters that he had voted against use of force in the Persian Gulf last year, had continued his opposition once hostilities began and was one of two senators who voted against charging Saddam Hussein with war crimes.
Clinton wasn't pointing these things out, mind you. He was simply saying that Bush would do so if Kerrey were the Democrat to oppose him in the fall. It was reminiscent of the old Dick Nixon tactic of telling audiences that he would not speak ill of his opponent, then adding, however, that "there are those who say" this or that about him.
You might argue that Clinton was only doing what Kerrey had done -- point out his opponent's electability problem. But Kerrey at least came right out and said it himself, though in the guise of protector of the party. Clinton made Bush the villain, merely suggesting what would be in store for Kerrey as the Democratic nominee. Also, the allegations against Clinton were already well known; Kerrey's votes on the Gulf War were not nearly so -- not until Clinton helpfully recited them, anyway.
Tsongas, whose growing self-righteousness has rankled the other candidates, has not been clean in this regard either. As Clinton and Kerrey noted, he attacked their proposals for a middle-class tax cut on grounds it would increase the tax burden the next generation, when each explicitly had said he would tax the wealthy to pay for it.
After Clinton pointed out this fact in a debate in Denver the other night, Tsongas piously raised his hand and called on the others to join him in vowing not to launch negative attacks on each other. The next day in Georgia, however, a Tsongas radio ad ran, chastising Clinton for losing his cool before a television camera and attacking Jesse Jackson a few days earlier, when misinformed that Jackson had endorsed Harkin. If that ad was produced after the others declined to join Tsongas in his pledge, it must have broken all speed records for production and placement.
Most of the Democratic candidates in one debate or another have reminded the group and voters that the real target is George Bush, and that preserving unity and comity is essential. But getting completely off the low road now may be too much to expect.