It sounded like admirable high-mindedness: Democratic National Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr. recently pleaded with the party's presidential candidates to resist "television scriptwriters," among others, who would have them attack their rivals.

But it's doubtful anyone will listen.

The events of the 1988 campaign prove again a time-honored truth: Negative television commercials can be effective.

The most recent example -- from Tuesday's South Dakota primary -- was the late-breaking commercial of Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) attacking Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D) for, among other sins, suggesting that farmers "have to diversify and grow blueberries, flowers and Belgian endive."

While Dukakis denounced as "inaccurate" Gephardt's 30-second spot when it began to blitz the airwaves four days before the voting, both campaigns agree that it played a role in Gephardt's victory in the agricultural state.

Dukakis, who six days before the election was 11 points ahead of Gephardt according to Gephardt's tracking polls, did not run a response ad, but stuck to themes of economic recovery and Central American peace. At a news conference in Boston yesterday, reflecting on his loss, Dukakis vowed he that would not be caught flat-footed again. "If I have to do what I have to do," he said, "I will do so."

"It just reconfirms my view that negative ads matter," said political scientist Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia. "Candidates who ignore them do so at their own peril. You've got to fight fire with fire."

The campaign for the Republican presidential nomination has been providing similar lessons. Sen. Robert J. Dole's 9-point loss to Vice President Bush in the New Hampshire primary was attributed in part to the Kansas senator's failure to answer a late Bush commercial accusing Dole of "straddling."

Similarly, in the week before Dole's win in the Iowa caucuses, several polling organizations indicated that he was catching up to Bush in New Hampshire as he began airing a commercial -- known as the "Doonesbury Spot" -- in which Bush's face slowly faded away as an announcer claimed that "he had nothing to do" with a host of Reagan administration accomplishments.

Tracking polls also suggested that Rep. Jack Kemp (N.Y.) may have gotten a bounce in late January from television commercials attacking Bush and Dole on such issues as taxes, Social Security and the oil import fee.

"It's clear that a negative message in a volatile environment where the support for your candidate is soft can have a decidedly big impact on the voter's decision," said Dole's pollster, Richard Wirthlin. "If you ask people how they respond to negative advertising, and they are answering in a rational, reasonable fashion, voters say they don't like them. But from an emotional, visceral point of view, {negative commercials} do seem to change perception, which is what campaigning is all about."

While Wirthlin said that the impact of negative advertising "is much less important in a race where the vote commitment is more crystallized," he added that if he had New Hampshire to do over again, "we would clearly have put a much more negative cast to our advertising" in the final days before the primary.

The tradition of the negative commercial -- also known by the euphemism "issue-oriented comparison spot" -- is a celebrated one, going back at least to President Lyndon B. Johnson's 1964 "Daisy" ad, which suggested, without ever mentioning his name, that Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) might start a nuclear war.

Still, past election cycles have shown that the weapon of negative ads can sometimes be hazardous to the candidate who wields it. In final weeks of the 1986 Colorado gubernatorial campaign, state Sen. Ted Strickland (R) ran a commercial trying to link State Treasurer Roy Romer (D) with radical activist Angela Davis -- a ploy that strained voters' credulity and helped demolish Strickland's candidacy as it handed Romer a landslide win.

Negative commercials "have to be absolutely factually accurate and they have to be about on-the-record material and not about someone's personal life," said Gephardt's media consultant, David Doak. Doak, with his partner Robert Shrum, has successfully used such ads in statewide elections. "They have to be a fair representation."

In the South Dakota race, Gephardt's pollster Ed Reilly said his tracking showed that the momentum was moving away from Dukakis and toward Gephardt before the negative ad began running Friday night. He said that by Sunday night, "before the ad really hit," Gephardt had moved to within 5 percentage points of Dukakis.

The Gephardt campaign says it made a $60,000 saturation buy of South Dakota's three television markets, airing a half-dozen commercials promoting Gephardt's stand on trade and touting the endorsement of Sen. Thomas A. Daschle, one of the state's most popular Democrats. Reilly said the negative spot accounted for 25 percent of Gephardt's television effort in the final days.

"You have to view the comparative ad in the context of the mix," Reilly said. "We also had an extremely powerful message on the air in a very positive sense. We also had the advantage of a person, in Tom Daschle, with enormous credibility locally."

Dukakis communications director Leslie Dach agreed that the negative blitz was one of several factors, but said he doubted that such a strategy will work in the March 8 "Super Tuesday" contests, in which Democrats will be competing for delegates in 20 primary and caucus states. "You can only repeat those tactics in very small states," he said.

Staff writer Maralee Schwartz and researcher Colette T. Rhoney contributed to this report.

---------THE RACE FOR DELEGATES------------

DELEGATES ALREADY WON------ ----------------

DEMOCRATIC----------------- REPUBLICAN------

Dukakis-------44.5--------- Bush----------61

Gephardt------39----------- Dole----------60

Gore----------10.55-------- Kemp----------35

Hart-----------0.---------- Robertson------8

Jackson--------9.8--------- Uncommitted----8

Simon---------33----------- ----------------

Uncommitted--274.4--------- ----------------

Needed for----------------- Needed for------

nomination-2,080----------- nomination-1,139

--------------------------- --------------------------------------

DELEGATES AT STAKE--------- --------------------- ----------------

--------------------------------------DEMOCRATIC- REPUBLICAN------

FEB. 23: Maine Caucuses-------------------23----- ----22----------

March 5: S.C. Republican Primary---------- ----- ----37----------

March 5: Wyoming Democratic caucus--------13----- ---- ----------

SOURCE: Associated Press