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May 03, 2004

QUALITY OF discourse in the presidential contest has ratcheted sharply downward in recent days, with both the Bush and Kerry campaigns returning to the familiar mud of Vietnam for ammunition.

Sen. John Kerry's patriotism, credibility and fitness to serve as commander in chief were all slimed by a double-barrel hit that combined his voting record on military spending with his conflicting accounts of tossing away his war medals in a protest demonstration 35 years ago. "Hanoi John," one GOP congressman called him.

Mr. Kerry and his supporters responded with a stinging barrage, reminding voters that President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney both went to great lengths to avoid service in Vietnam. The vice president, who is leading the attack against Mr. Kerry, was tarred as "lead chicken hawk," amid innuendoes that the birth of his first child was timed to enable Mr. Cheney to secure a family deferment from military service after his student deferments expired.

How much lower they can go may only be a function of time; this campaign still has seven months to run. Meanwhile, conduct on both sides is not only unbecoming but unproductive toward the serious business of choosing a chief executive.

From a strategic standpoint, the Republicans appear to be getting the best of these exchanges. They divert attention from the daily disaster in Iraq and from Mr. Kerry's attempts to tap into frustration over the slow pace of economic recovery.

Further, with Mr. Cheney down in the mud pit, Mr. Bush is free to remain above the fray - doing his best to create the impression that Mr. Kerry is simply not his equal as a potential wartime president, lacking the decisiveness and conviction to keep evildoers at bay.

Republicans are very good at this game; two years ago they knocked Georgia Democrat Max Cleland out of the Senate by charging that the decorated war veteran who lost three limbs in Vietnam was unpatriotic because he wanted greater worker protections in the Homeland Security Department.

And even as support for the Iraq war is sharply eroding, doubts about the conflict don't yet seem to be translating into potential votes for Mr. Kerry.

Perhaps that's because the senator too often has allowed himself to be taunted into emotional counterattacks when a more thoughtful, positive response is required.

He opted for that higher road Friday, fleshing out proposals for securing more international help in Iraq, in part by better making the case that all are threatened if Iraq descends into chaos.

More detail would be welcome on how his policies on combating terror would be different from those of the president. Mr. Kerry might simply explain why military spending doesn't necessarily translate into security, and why much of what he opposed in the past was pure bloat.

A superficial campaign of tit for tat won't hold any appeal for the small pool of swing voters likely to decide the outcome of this race. Neither candidate can afford to let them stay home in disgust.

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