Although most political writers and television commentators have treated Gary Hart's reentry into the Democratic presidential sweepstakes with a sense of decorum, the nation's editorial cartoonists appear to be hitting below the belt.
The former Colorado senator's cartoon caricature is beginning to take shape as the candidate attired in boxer shorts, if that.
While Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) is lampooned for his bow tie and Vice President Bush for his large forehead and endless smile, Hart's peccadilloes have become the prime target of the nation's cartoonists. And their shorthand is a Gary Hart missing his britches.
"Our job has always been to point out that the king doesn't have any clothes," said David Wiley Miller, a cartoonist with the San Francisco Examiner. "With Gary Hart, it's just more appropriate."
Miller, who signs his cartoons "Wiley," recently showed an irritated Hart speaking to the Daughters of the American Revolution. "Okay," Hart is saying, "where are your daughters?"
"There wasn't any reaction much, but you have to remember: This is San Francisco," Miller said.
By contrast, Doug Marlette, who moved to the Atlanta Constitution from The Charlotte Observer about eight months ago, said one of his Hart cartoons drew more mail than any of his previous cartoons for the Constitution.
Marlette featured Hart in a raincoat -- the political flasher of the presidential race. One of two women walking past the candidate says: "Ignore him -- It's just Gary Hart with another new idea."
"They were nasty letters," Marlette said. "They had to be opened at arm's length."
Hart's reentry into the nomination contest has energized cartoonists by providing an issue that is just plain sexier than toxic wastes, the arms race or budget deficits.
Several cartoonists show various Hart-type characters trying to seduce the voters or the donkey, symbol of the Democratic Party. At least two have sketched Hart with a chastity belt. Wayne Stayskal, cartoonist for The Tampa Tribune, featured Hart aides trying to interest the candidate in kissing the baby, not its mother.
And Paul Conrad of the Los Angeles Times drew a Christmas Eve cartoon showing Hart at a news conference, baring his backside to the cameras and an audience of shocked and befuddled reporters.
"Some people didn't like it," said editorial page editor Anthony Day, who is empowered to shelve a Conrad cartoon but seldom does.
"Some people said it was vulgar," Day said.
"I say, 'Of course, it's vulgar, but Conrad's point is that Hart is the one being vulgar.' "
These artists, whose graphic depictions of politicos reach many voters who can't or won't read long political analyses, mostly have a free hand at their newspapers.
Some have contracts that virtually assure that what they draw is what newspaper readers see.
Others are independent, with editors providing "guidance" when readers howl.
"These guys terrify the editors," said William Dickinson, editorial director of The Washington Post Writers Group. "They get these strange glints in their eyes."
"What happens is that you accrue freedom over time," Marlette said. "I think eventually editors wise up to the fact that a cartoon is not an editorial. Words are more civilized, but a cartoon is visual and primitive and you can't say, 'On the other hand . . . . ' "