Why would a political candidate call it "deliberately misleading" for his opponent to picture himself holding a small child? Haven't politicians been posing with babies since Caesar visited Egypt?

When you're a social conservative running for office in Northern Virginia and time is running out and your stands on the issues aren't connecting, anything goes. And what some hard-right Republican candidates are throwing at their opponents is a collection of mudballs apparently designed to get voters to view their opponents -- even in their own party -- as pro-gay or as possible homosexuals.

Here's a press release from Ron Grignol, the Republican challenger for a House seat in the 43rd District in southeastern Fairfax near Fort Belvoir: Del. Mark Sickles, a Democrat, "sent a mail piece deliberately misleading the voters" by showing Sickles cradling a toddler in his arms. "The problem is Mark Sickles does not have a child or a family."

Grignol notes in the release that he indeed has children, which he says helps him understand how to improve schools, while Sickles "feels he needs to mislead voters."

Curiously, while Grignol's Web site shows him with his two daughters, it is silent about his own family status. He is divorced, something he does mention in his campaign speeches.

When I asked Grignol's campaign manager, Jay Ford, how the photo of Sickles became an issue, he said the campaign received "15 or 16 calls" from voters who were "confused."

Then he volunteered that "it doesn't really bother us too much, but his sexual orientation is a mystery to us. It was never our intention to question his sexuality. We were just looking for honesty in the campaign."

I'll wait while you wipe off the slime.

"It's just a picture of me, frankly," says Sickles. "I've posed with firefighters, with policemen, with the governor, with my family. Kissing babies is part of the job." He did not care to dignify his opponent's attack with any further comment.

Sickles isn't married and has no children. He never said he did.

Other candidates have made more overt appeals. Last spring, in the Republican primary in the 67th District in western Fairfax, challenger Chris Craddock defeated Del. Gary Reese after repeatedly mentioning that Reese had once been endorsed by the Washington Blade, a gay newspaper. It wasn't true.

Reese, a reliable conservative on social issues, has now endorsed the Democrat in the race, Chuck Caputo.

"Within the Republican Party, there is a small, vocal minority for whom this is an issue above all others," says Reese. "It has become obsessive. We have spent so much time on the gay and abortion issues to the exclusion of the people's real problems."

"The Republicans are increasingly willing to use innuendo to imply that being single -- wink, wink -- makes you unsuitable for public office," says Del. Adam Ebbin (D-Arlington), the state's only openly gay legislator. "Ninety-nine percent of Virginians want to hear about transportation, education and health care."

In Loudoun County, Del. Dick Black, one of the harshest social conservatives in the House, sent out a letter this month warning that his opponent, David Poisson, would "press radical new homosexual ideas" if elected.

A letter signed this month by more than 700 Virginia clergy and religious people asked candidates to pledge not to appeal to prejudices based on sexual orientation. An organizer of the pledge, John Humphrey of Hope United Church of Christ in Alexandria, said Grignol, Craddock and Black did not respond to the request.

The targets of these tactics aren't happy about the attacks or public discussion of them. They fear that the mere reporting of such tactics might prompt some voters to make choices based on bigotry. But I believe most people, whatever they think of homosexuality, are appalled by this sleaze. It's one reason so few people vote.

More important, reporters have no right to suppress stories like this. When candidates resort to slimy tactics, the public should know about it.

"When the press fails to report on what these people are doing with gay-baiting," Reese says, "we all lose. Horrible things can happen in the dark."

Join me at noon today

for "Potomac Confidential" at