The issue of negative campaigning really hit home when Paul Tsongas accused Bill Clinton of holding a half-dozen overdue library books.
Needless to say, the Clinton campaign went ballistic, even though a few days earlier, the Arkansas governor had accused Tsongas of deliberately misleading voters with the silent consonant at the beginning of his last name.
"Tell me," Clinton had thundered to a cheering crowd outside a department store in Fort Lauderdale, "how in the world do you get 'ZAHN-gus' out of T-s-o-n-g-a-s?!
"If that's how the man wants to pronounce it, fine! But, by God, spell it that way! Come clean with the American people!"
Oh, the crowd ate it up! Everywhere you looked, people were waving tiny flags and holding babies up to be kissed and chanting: "CLIN-TON! CLIN-TON! CLIN-TON!"
The Tsongas forces, on the other hand, appeared shaken. Summoning his top aides to a hastily arranged meeting at a Stuckey's outside Savannah, Ga., the former senator from Massachusetts vowed not to allow "the unusual spelling of my name to change the tenor of this presidential campaign."
Later, before diving into the heavily chlorinated water of a local pool to do his odd version of the butterfly stroke, Tsongas also threatened to "go on the attack" if "these scurrilous charges by my opponent don't cease."
The next day, the Clinton library book story was conveniently "leaked" to the New York Times.
Of course, the media jackals grabbed the story by the throat and refused to let go. Within hours, a search of the Little Rock public library system files confirmed that a handful of books checked out by Gov. Clinton had never been returned, although the total number was actually four, not six.
The missing books included a Fredrick Forsythe novel, a coffee table book about Impressionist painters and a law text on torts, apparently earmarked for Hillary Clinton.
Finally there was "Home Plumbing From A-to-Z," which had been borrowed, according to one well-placed source, when the seal around the toilet of the upstairs bathroom in the governor's mansion burst.
Total amount of fines due: $7.75.
"Our policy," librarian Clarise W. Forester told CNN that day, "is that we expect folks who borrow our books to return them on time.
"I know the governor is a busy man," Mrs. Forester continued, her eyes narrowing. "But, still. Someone on his staff could have dropped off the books. Our main library downtown is open until 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, while our branch libraries are . . ."
CNN had gone to a commercial at that point, leaving Mrs. Forester ticking off additional closing times while the jingle for a leading oven cleaner blared in millions of American homes.
Nevertheless, it was clear that the Clinton campaign was reeling.
That night on ABC's "Nightline," Tsongas (via satellite from Tallahassee) told Ted Koppel: "I don't think we want a president who can't be counted on to return his library books on time. It's not the money. It's the principle."
Thus far, the other Democratic presidential candidates have been curiously silent concerning Clinton's library book woes.
Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, reached at his new headquarters near a park bench in Houston, declined to comment, explaining that his campaign was down to its last $4.50 and thus did not want to waste money faxing a statement.
"All in all, I . . .," Harkin said from a pay phone before the line went dead.
Former California Gov. Jerry Brown also issued a terse "no comment."
Brown, according to campaign sources, is still stinging from the treatment he received at a recent debate. Whenever Brown attempted to speak, the other candidates simultaneously rolled their eyes and drew tiny imaginary circles near their temples with their index fingers, the universal symbol, Brown charged later, for "having a screw loose."
Of course, the Republican presidential candidates have hardly been above a little vicious back-biting themselves.
During a recent campaign stop in Miami, conservative columnist Pat Buchanan accused President Bush of deliberately copying the video "Terminator 2," in direct violation of the FBI warning against duplication.
Bush responded by placing one thumb in each ear, wiggling his fingers and sticking his tongue out.
Later, at a "Policeman of the Year" banquet in Michigan, Vice President Dan Quayle charged that Buchanan "routinely" rips the tags off his mattresses, in direct violation of state and federal statutes.
There has been no response from the Buchanan campaign.