The Republicans miss the late Lee Atwater, the best down-and-dirty politician of his time. It has taken three men to replace him: Patrick Buchanan, Sen. Alan Simpson and Rep. Newt Gingrich. All three have an instinct for the groin; all are too nasty by half.
Mr. Buchanan, the dark religious warrior, was put in his place the other day by Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times, who wrote: ''There's one brooding at the end of every bar from South Boston to San Francisco's Outer Richmond . . . The booze warms them, but nothing like their hatreds.''
Mr. Simpson and Mr. Gingrich are the Mutt 'n' Jeff of dirty politics. Bending over, the senator is still about 6 foot 5, and Mr. Gingrich is getting rounder and rounder every year. They take themselves very seriously, which is their problem.
Whatever he said, no matter how mean he was -- and he was mean -- Atwater still seemed to have a wink back there someplace, and you suspected that if you were knocked down at the side of the road he would stop to help.
Mr. Simpson would stop, too, to get in one last kick, as he did with the innuendo that he had an extra pocketful of dirt to rub on Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings.
Mr. Gingrich, like Mr. Buchanan, would stop to laugh, though his mien would be jollier than the dark one's. These guys mean it. There is no humor in Mr. Gingrich's eyes. Mr. Simpson's specialty is a kind of hiss.
The senator's job during the Republican National Convention was press-bashing, a subject at which he is so expert he is apparently doing a book on the outrages of ink-stained wretches and other threats to the supremacy of the well-born rulers of the republic.
The assigned or assumed task of Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Gingrich to remind Americans, most of them, of their Christianity and their debt to Christian ideas and efforts over the centuries.
Theodore Roosevelt once called the Episcopal Church the Republican Party at prayer. But the Grand Old Party's base has broadened a bit since then.
In fact, George Herbert Walker Bush might be called the last Episcopalian. Looking out from the podium in Houston, he saw a shining sea of younger faces, a bunch of kids to him. Who are they? They're Baptists and Presbyterians and Methodists, said his men. They've come to take your party when you go to bed. Some are even puritanical Catholics like Mr. Buchanan, volunteering to join the Roundheads.
God and country are getting equal billing with the Republicans ++ this year. To the point that a 7-year-old from here, named Fiona Reeves, taking the morning call from her daddy in Houston, asked: ''Why do they say 'God bless you' all the time? Are people sneezing?''
Those of us who thought patriotism was the last refuge of scoundrels were wrong. God is. And God, it seems, cares more about such things as abortion and marriage and homosexuality than he does about education and jobs and health care.
Mr. Gingrich took on the assignment of preaching indirectly about the link between Christianity and the ''family values'' so beloved of Republicans and other right-thinking people. Appearing with Mr. Bush last weekend in Woodstock, Ga., in the Baptist heartland, the congressman, a Baptist himself, celebrated Republican family values, then tried to link Democratic values with the narcissistic mid-life problems of the hero or non-hero of the Jewish heartland of Manhattan, Woody Allen.
''The Woody Allen plank . . . incest . . . non-daughter . . . non-father . . . non-family,'' were the phrases and words Mr. Gingrich managed to get into a political speech. The subliminal message, and not all that ''sub,'' was, ''New Yorker . . . Freud . . . them . . . Jews.'' Then Mr. Bush came on to do his thing in Woodstock, and later the same day appeared in Dallas, saying that the three most important letters missing from the Democratic platform were ''G-O-D.''
The tensions of the Republican Party in Houston, and there were many, were along high-church, low-church fault lines. White men and women who identified themselves as Evangelical Christians counted for more than 40 percent of the delegates. They want 40 percent of the power -- they already have more than that of the party's platform -- and they will soon want all of it under the all-American doctrine of majority rules.
''Family values,'' then, is a synonym for religious values, essentially Christian values. It is more than just a trick to avoid talking about pocketbook issues, though that is part of the Republican strategy. It is a symbol of the fact that one group of people believes they are morally superior to others.
That is the stuff of crusades, not campaigns, and that means high-minded dirty politics, because many Republicans think they have a moral obligation to punish sinners, particularly if they're Democrats.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.