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One can't help but notice, in the wake of the Republicans' pitiless bludgeoning of the Democratic Party, that our esteemed employer has credited-and substantially endorsed-attack advertising (see Rance Crain's column on Page 28). Rance, or, as we like to call him, Mr. Crain, says negative advertising is "the best way of differentiating one candidate from another."

Yep. The candidate pressing all of the hot buttons with half-truths, distortions and irrelevancies is the scoundrel. The other one, historically, is "the winner."

At least in national races, until last week, attack advertising has been not only disgraceful but also, with few exceptions, unsuccessful. Mudslinging has narrowed margins but seldom won anything but the contempt of the electorate for politicians of all stripes.

More on this presently, because clearly this election changes everything. In any event, no endorsement of ultimately dishonest advertising of any sort should go unchallenged. But tempting as it may be to devote this entire space to questioning the sanity, judgment and possible undiagnosed head injury of Mr. Crain, for two reasons we will focus elsewhere:

1) Our houseful of mouths to feed.

2) It wasn't advertising that created this GOP onslaught. It was marketing.

Flash back to Bill Clinton's march to the White House. As a shrewd marketer, he gauged the consumers' needs and wants-namely, a centrist government that would end legislative gridlock, fix the economy, guarantee healthcare coverage and compassionately reform the welfare state.

Clinton reckoned that an increasingly liberal-averse public would suffer a Democratic government provided it positioned itself as mainstream. And because the Bush presidency was so rudderless, and his re-election campaign so abysmal, the challenger won. Then, on his first week on the job, President Clinton championed gays in the military.

It was not a mere political blunder. To many white middle-class Americans, it was betrayal. Certainly that's how Rush Limbaugh played it, stoking the fires of rage among those tired of affirmative action, urban violence, political correctness, teen-age parents, crack babies-in short, all the consequences, intended and otherwise, of the social engineering designed by liberal Democrats to create social justice.

Bill Clinton sought only to redress discrimination against gays, but he may as well have changed his voter registration to Sandinista.

Because Clinton had ceased to be John Kennedyesque. He was now Ted Kennedyesque. From that point forward, it was easy for Republicans to portray healthcare reform as socialized medicine, to spin Clinton's deficit reduction into "the largest tax increase in history" and to minimize the bloodless restoration of democracy in Haiti (and its ending of Florida's refugee nightmare) as Jimmy Carter's victory.

Whether or not he had betrayed America, the president had certainly betrayed his marketing plan. His demonization, on radio talk shows and finally in Republican attack advertising, therefore played very well. All the challengers had to do was run against Bill "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Clinton.

And that is why it is crazy, and wrong, to credit slimy attack ads for the GOP romp. What propelled Republicans to victory had little to do with the ads and everything to do with marketing-the party's ability to read the consumer's taste, and position itself accordingly. Meanwhile, all the things that were always shameful about negative advertising still are.

Still replete with ugly half-truths, which are ultimately lies. Still the province of irrelevant, inflammatory "facts" (as if, for example, the death-chamber body count has anything to do with crime rates, much less an elected official's "toughness" on crime).

Still playing on people's worst, most hateful impulses, Mr. Crain reminds us that advertisers have the right to present themselves, and their competitors, "in any way they see fit."

But before he gives say, Dodge his blessing to depict Chevy trucks in flames, we suggest he wait two years. Because in due course, the frustrated public will discover that a balanced-budget amendment, just to pick one item showcased in the GOP marketing plan, will mean cuts in entitlement programs that mainstream America will not abide.

Whereupon the tables will be turned, and the mud will be slung from the other direction, and once again we will witness the shameful spectacle and who knows who will win. But surely we know this: Decency, and democracy, will lose.

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