This is a bad news/good news column. It gets better as it goes along. Stick with me, and you'll see why.

The bad news is that as the fall campaign season begins, slash-and-burn negative campaign ads still fill the airwaves. Hit-and-run attacks on opponents, some as short as 10 seconds, are popping up everywhere despite the fact that newspapers across the country are showing increasing vigilance in policing the distortions and blowing the whistle on below-the-belt tactics. In some places, at least, voters are penalizing the candidates who are guilty of fouling their opponents.

Texas ad-maker Ray Strother says, "The level of public tolerance is getting lower; the danger of a backlash is higher." Washington pollster Geoff Garin adds, "In every state I'm {working} in, at least one paper -- and usually more -- is taking each ad as soon as it goes up and saying what's true in it and what isn't. ... And if a paper calls it sleazy, the next day the other side has an ad up saying, 'Herald calls ad sleazy.' "

Since I urged back in January that the press step forward to police the campaign process, the response has been remarkable. You readers fill my mail with examples of papers in your area casting a harsh spotlight on candidates who twist the campaign away from voters' real concerns in order to exploit "hot-button" issues of dubious relevance.

The advocacy group People for the American Way surveyed 110 television news directors and newspaper reporters in major media markets. It reported this month that more than 80 percent of them now favor the media taking "an aggressive role in exposing false or misleading advertising by political candidates."

Many politicians, turned off by these tactics themselves, are encouraging the press to be even more vigilant. At a recent American Press Institute symposium on campaign reporting, Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.) said, "Candidates will always define the issues in the most self-serving way, so you must persist in asking the tough questions. ... Like it or not, you've got the {referee's} striped shirt, so I hope you'll enforce the rules with a lot of persistence."

Robb is not alone in expressing his disdain for negative ads. Readers offer many examples of politicians who are showing their confidence in the voters' common sense by talking seriously and substantively about the choices their candidacies represent. A reader in Bradenton, Fla., sent me a full-page ad -- the fourth in a series -- in which a Republican candidate for the Sarasota County Commission, Elling O. Eide, provided what appears to be a thoughtful analysis of housing problems in the area.

Another sent me a clip from the Midland, Mich., Daily News, in which news editor-columnist Ralph E. Wirtz pointed out that the two candidates in the 10th District Republican congressional primary who avoided "backstabbing and bickering" led the field, while the two whose campaigns "were nothing more than volleys of cheap shots" trailed. "Nice guys," he said, "don't always finish last."

Yet in Michigan, Florida and other states, top-of-the-ticket campaigns have been marked by relentlessly negative ads, even though the newspapers are busily debunking them. Why? Because too many candidates and their consultants cynically believe that "they work," that it's the only level on which they can engage the voters' attention.

I think they're wrong -- and that conviction is strengthened by a letter I received this week from another Floridian, 31-year-old Air Force Captain Ron Miller of Melbourne. Along with his friend, Mark Solomon, who recently retired from the Air Force to become a community worker in the Seattle police department, Miller is conducting what he calls an "experiment in democracy" or "adult civics project."

Miller is a Republican, Solomon a Democrat. Both are black, but more to the point, both say they are concerned enough about the country's future to test whether "two ordinary American citizens" can stimulate a response from the nation's leaders to their plea for "a broad national agenda," based on "accountability and individual responsibility."

They have put their heads together to formulate an exceptionally clear and compelling eight-page statement on domestic and foreign policy. They have just sent it to 54 leaders of Congress, asking them to "read what we have to say and tell us your views."

An earlier version, sent to President Bush, drew a form letter response that left Republican Miller "totally dissatisfied."

"We're simply speaking our minds on the issues that face the country," they write the congressional leaders. "There are millions of equally informed and concerned citizens who have become disillusioned by their apparent lack of influence on the governmental process. We want to see if their cynicism is justified. ... The conventional wisdom says one or two voices don't count any more. We welcome you to prove us wrong."

My bet is that this plea for a dialogue between citizens and their representatives will not fall on deaf ears. And I hope those who receive their letter will remember it when they approve their TV spots for the fall campaign.