Every election has an ample measure of grandstanding, cheap shots, unfair assaults and outright demagoguery.

That's been the case since John Adams was called a "hoary headed incendiary" who wanted to make himself president for life. (He lost his bid for reelection to Thomas Jefferson, who was accused in the press of getting it on with a slave.)

But are you getting the impression that the '02 edition of American politics is especially lame?

The Democrats say the Republicans want to ruin Social Security. The Republicans say the Democrats are soft on Iraq. Both sides fill the airwaves with negative ads. The public seems to be yawning. In places like California, they're talking about record low turnout, since there seems to be minimal enthusiasm for both gubernatorial candidates.

Sure, voters are distracted by the Beltway sniper and the war drums on Iraq. But it doesn't exactly feel like a great debate is under way. There's been more passion about the last-minute Torricelli withdrawal than about anything the candidates are arguing over in New Jersey, or any other state for that matter.

You'd hardly guess that control of both houses of Congress is at stake.

The reasons aren't hard to divine. Sound bites are easy. Fixing Social Security is hard. Attack ads are easy. Closing huge budget deficits, when everyone is afraid to talk about taxes, is hard. Empty rhetoric is easy. Ensuring health coverage for 40 million uncovered Americans is hard.

Once upon a time, the media might have helped fill the gap. News organizations might have run pieces and editorials demanding specific answers from the candidates on pressing issues. Where are the White House correspondents demanding that Bush talk about something other than Iraq?

But media types are busy being consumed by the violence in Maryland and Virginia and the preparations for violence in Baghdad. They haven't quite tuned in to this election, except for the usual horse-race stuff about polls and predictions. And so the candidates are, by and large, getting an easy ride.

The drama gets an emphatic two thumbs down from political theater critic Ron Brownstein at the Los Angeles Times

"Election 2002 is becoming the Campaign From Hell. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"Most campaigns this year seem to be operating at two speeds: vicious and vacuous. Here in Texas, Republican Gov. Rick Perry and his Democratic challenger, banker Tony Sanchez, have been very specific in their personal allegations about each other -- and equally vague in their policy prescriptions for many of the state's problems. It's a formula evident in races everywhere.

"What voters aren't seeing are candidates, at least not in the flesh. Campaigns appear to be evolving beyond much actual campaigning. Exceptions endure, of course, but the typical candidate today does far fewer public events -- speeches at Rotary Clubs, visits to senior centers, sit-downs at schools -- than their counterparts a decade or two ago.

"It's good news for managing editors watching the campaign travel budgets of newspaper reporters, but not so terrific for everybody else. The chance for real voters -- or even for reporters, as their surrogates -- to push and prod and take the measure of office-seekers is eroding as candidates expose themselves to fewer uncontrolled situations.

"Where are the politicians? Usually on the phone, raising money to buy television ads. In Iowa, Democrat Ann Hutchinson, who's challenging Republican Rep. Jim Nussle in a House race, admits she spends more of her time raising money than on anything else. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"If there's one common theme in state and federal races this year, it's avoidance of confronting tough problems -- especially the budget squeeze facing governments at all levels. At least 45 states are facing budget deficits. But the biggest deficit in state campaigns this year is in specifics from gubernatorial candidates about how they would close those shortfalls -- much less simultaneously fund the improvements in education and health care many are promising."


A New York Times editorial picks up the theme:

"The candidates for high office in New York seem to be living in some kind of dream world, as if 9/11 and the stock market collapse had never occurred. While Mayor Bloomberg is weighing tax increases and asking city agencies to look for meaningful cuts, no such serious exercise is occurring at the state level. Gov. George Pataki's budget is unrealistic, something that can't have escaped his opponent, Carl McCall, the state comptroller. Yet both sides seem content to sidestep details, lest they have to start talking about the pain to come.

"Indeed, New York isn't the only state suffering from budget denial. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that 46 states piled up a combined deficit of $37 billion in the most recent fiscal year, which ended June 30. Those numbers could grow to nearly $60 billion this fiscal year. But to hear the candidates in some states tell it, these deficits will somehow solve themselves, without serious sacrifice on the part of the taxpayers. In Maryland, for instance, -- a small state with a big $1.3 billion deficit -- the two gubernatorial candidates say flatly that no new taxes are needed. In California, where last year's energy crisis made a bad budget situation even worse, Gov. Gray Davis has essentially covered a $24 billion budget hole with legislative duct tape, delaying for now probable cuts in education and social services. Taxes? Neither Mr. Davis nor his Republican opponent has any use for the word."


On the terrorism front, the lull seems to be over, reports USA Today:

"President Bush said yesterday that he assumes al-Qaeda was responsible for the deadly bombing in Indonesia and that he is worried about fresh attacks on the United States. 'I think we have to assume it's al-Qaeda,' he said.

"The president's comments at an informal White House news conference echoed suspicions voiced earlier by other officials. But he offered no specific evidence connecting al-Qaeda to Saturday's attack that left at least 188 dead on the resort island of Bali, including two Americans. That bombing followed the recent shooting death of a U.S. Marine in Kuwait and an apparent terrorist attack on a French oil tanker off Yemen.

"'They're trying to intimidate us,' the president said, 'and we won't be intimidated.'"


If this New York Post story is right -- and everyone's got the same leak -- it could mark the first time prosecutors flipped a CEO to get to someone who merely owned some stock in the company:

"Martha Stewart's pal Sam Waksal is expected to plead guilty as early as today to insider-trading charges stemming from the ImClone scandal, putting federal investigators one step closer to prosecuting the domestic diva.

"Two sources told The Post last night the ImClone founder was planning to enter a plea in the hope of reducing his prison sentence and saving his father and daughter from being charged.

"It was not clear whether Waksal has agreed to testify against Stewart -- as has the assistant to her broker -- but he will tell investigators all he knows about the trading of ImClone stocks on Dec. 27, the sources said."


Very bad manners indeed.

The Washington Times runs this headline -- "Polls put Senate control within grasp of GOP" -- but the story sort of renders it meaningless:

"If the election were held today, according to pollster John Zogby, Republicans would make the needed one-seat pickup -- though that assessment is based on polling results that are within the margin of error.

"'If the election were held today, the Republicans would pick up Missouri, South Dakota and Minnesota,' Mr. Zogby said. 'They even have a shot at picking up Georgia. But Democrats would pick up Arkansas and Colorado.'

"Some Republicans privately said they would add New Hampshire to that list of Democrats' gains. The latest polls, in fact, show 10 Senate contests within the margin of error, including the three targeted by both parties: Missouri, Minnesota and South Dakota."


So you could also say the Senate is within the Democrats' grasp.

The free ride is over for Doug (I'm Not Torricelli) Forrester, as the New York Times follows up on a Newark Star-Ledger scoop:

"Douglas R. Forrester, New Jersey's Republican nominee for the United States Senate, found himself on the defensive today about several newspaper columns he wrote more than a decade ago opposing drunken-driving checkpoints, criticizing New Jersey's ban on assault weapons and saying that Atlantic City had 'the subtle beauty of a streetwalker.'

"In a 1991 column, Mr. Forrester, who has made his support for military action to oust Saddam Hussein a centerpiece of his Senate campaign, urged Americans to forgive the Iraqis who tortured American prisoners."


That old paper trail gets you every time.

The New Republic adds Hillary to the list of Dems the magazine has been slapping around:

"History will probably judge Bill Clinton's bathetic efforts to define the word 'is' to be his slipperiest moment. But that would be to overlook the absurdity of his equivocation over the 1991 Gulf War resolution. 'I guess I would have voted with the majority if it was a close vote,' then-Governor Clinton said at the time. 'But I agree with the argument the minority made.'

"Now the ex-president's wife, Senator Hillary Clinton, is following in his footsteps. The Iraq debate found Hillary caught between the pressure of her very liberal core supporters, and her apparent desire to moderate her image--possibly in service of a future White House run. To resolve this dilemma, Hillary seems to have followed her husband's example. Explaining her position on the Senate floor last night, she first noted the sheer agony of having to make up her mind--'probably the hardest decision I've ever had to make,' she said. Then Hillary neatly found a position which allowed her, in the finest Clinton tradition, to take two positions at once: She would back the resolution because bipartisan support will make a strong United Nations 'more likely and, therefore, war less likely.' In other words, Hillary was voting for war because she is against war. We bet even her husband is impressed."


And speaking of the former first lady, Newsday has this wire report on her future prospects:

"A strong majority of Americans feel Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton should never run for president, a poll released yesterday showed.

"The Marist Institute for Public Opinion found 69 percent of Americans said the Democratic former first lady, now senator from New York, shouldn't run. Twenty-six percent said she should run 'someday.'"


Slate's Daniel Gross wants the White House to field a new team:

"Surveying the 1962 New York Mets, perhaps the most woeful assemblage of talent ever to take the field, legendary manager Casey Stengel plaintively asked, 'Can't anybody here play this game?'

"I'm beginning to wonder the same about the Bush economic team. At a press conference on Oct. 10 -- the day after the Dow fell to a five-year low -- Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and Commerce Secretary Don Evans, former chief executive officers both, accused their erstwhile colleagues of willfully seeing the gray lining in all the silver economic clouds. 'I don't understand why there seems to be a focus on the negative to the exclusion of the positive things that are going on,' O'Neill said. O'Neill added that the economy could grow by as much as 4 percent next year, not the feeble 1.5 percent to 3 percent predicted by members of the U.S. Business Council. For his part, Evans pointed to strong consumer spending as evidence of a turnaround.

"You have to wonder if these guys read the Wall Street Journal, which provides ample reason to focus on the negative, or if Evans has any clue of what's going on at his own department. About 20 hours after the press conference, Commerce reported that retail spending fell 1.2 percent in September. This unexpectedly large drop has raised fears that anxious consumers may finally be reining in their expenditures.

"The lack of confidence, on the part of both business executives and consumers, could be a significant obstacle to economic growth. And while its entirely possible we'd be in the same situation -- or even in a worse one -- with a different administration, the actions of the Bush economic team, from the president on down, have done little to bolster confidence."


Is television responsible for all those L.A. car chases? The Wall Street Journal seems to think so:

"Goaded by an almost guaranteed spike in ratings, seven Los Angeles broadcast news outlets now compete to broadcast live police pursuits, the latest of which was on Monday. Promising 'a live high-speed chase on TV almost every week!,' a Los Angeles beeper/e-mail service notifies 2,000 subscribers -- who each pay $5 a month for the pleasure -- when a televised version of cops and robbers is under way.

"But the city's media-chase machine is increasingly under scrutiny as law enforcement tries to understand a surge in Los Angeles pursuits. The number of people who tried to flee a Los Angeles Police Department officer has shot up 40% over the past three years, to 781 last year from 563 in 1999, even as the numbers have steadily declined in the rest of the state. While no statistics exist to prove how many evaders are motivated by media attention, LAPD officers, and some prosecutors, are starting to point the finger at TV coverage as a contributing factor.

"'All of us have a gut feeling that it looks like some are trying to get their 15 minutes of fame,' says Deputy Chief David Doan, who is heading a current LAPD investigation into the reasons behind the rise in pursuits. He cites chases in which drivers have waved from their car windows, or slowed down to chat with bystanders, as evidence of attention seeking."

The top cop in Montgomery County, Maryland, has stirred another controversy, this one in faraway Mississippi, reports WLBT-TV:

"National television shows report that Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose has worn his emotions on his sleeve throughout the sniper investigation .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. attacking the media at times.

"In fact, Good Morning America reports that the police chief has taken anger management classes. On the Friday episode of the ABC news show, the chief blamed much of his anger on discrimination.

"'Being a person that is in an interracial marriage, my wife and I were subject to many different types of discrimination, sometimes subtle, sometimes very blatant. She was with me certainly when the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi told me that I couldn't be police chief there simply because I had a white wife,' Moose said.

"Moose did not even make the top eight finalists for the police chief position in 1994. Mayor Harvey Johnson was quick to point out that Kane Ditto was mayor when Moose was considered for a job here. 'I don't know whether the statement was made or not. I don't know where the records are. I never met the man and don't know him,' Mayor Johnson said.

"Kane Ditto was out of town Friday. But when we talked to him by phone, he denied making that statement to Chief Moose. He said the reason Moose was not hired was because he was too young and at that time did not have the qualifications for the job."


Finally, in the here's-what-they-really-think department, this dispatch from the Denver Post:

"A White House intern 'mistakenly' forwarded to dozens of Hispanic leaders an e-mail that described the Senate's senior Democrat as 'doddering old Bob Byrd, the senile senator from West Virginia' and was highly critical of the Hispanic members of Congress who voted against the Iraq war resolution, an administration spokeswoman told The Denver Post.

"A White House spokeswoman, Jeanie Mamo, said the e-mail was written by 'an activist' and 'does not represent' the views of the president. Mamo did not name the activist or say whether the intern was being disciplined for her actions."


Or getting high-fives.