THE FRONT OF the electioneering leaflet appears to be splattered with blood. An innocent schoolgirl is depicted resisting the sinister approach of a stranger. "Who Voted to Protect Child Molesters Who Murder Children?" the pamphlet demands to know in large, bloody letters. Inside, the answer looms even larger: "Ken Plum Did!" The only understated element is the credit line; "Friends of Mike Pocalyko" appears in tiny type on the back. And no wonder; if we were Mr. Pocalyko, a Republican running for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates against incumbent Mr. Plum, we'd be embarrassed, too.

The high-stakes Virginia election is less than a week away. Not surprisingly, the rhetoric is intensifying. Republicans are hoping to win majorities in both the state Senate and the House of Delegates for the first time ever; Democrats are fighting just as intently to hold or gain ground. In a state with few campaign finance restrictions, state and national parties are pouring money into many races, where candidates for delegate -- a part-time job that pays less than $20,000 a year -- are routinely spending $130,000 or $150,000 or, in some cases, substantially more.

In Northern Virginia, the policy differences between candidates are often slight. Republicans and Democrats alike tend to portray themselves as pro-education and anti-sprawl. A certain amount of distortion about incumbents' records, to make them seem less pro-education or more pro-sprawl, therefore seems to be the norm. A legislator may have voted for a bill in one form but opposed it in another; such nuances tend to be dropped from much campaign literature.

But the latest broadside from Mr. Pocalyko goes beyond such mild distortion. The basis for his inflammatory accusation is votes Mr. Plum cast, for example, against capital punishment for child molesters. Mr. Plum says he has long opposed the death penalty and favors instead life imprisonment without parole. This is a stance that voters can choose to agree or disagree with, but it hardly makes Mr. Plum a friend of sex perverts. Mr. Pocalyko, a former Navy pilot with intelligent things to say on a range of issues, should know better. And as Election Day approaches, Virginia voters should read all their campaign literature with a critical eye.