On the Thursday before the Memorial Day weekend, five of George Bush's senior campaign aides traveled to Paramus, N.J., for what may well be remembered as the most important strategy session of the most negative -- and among the most effective -- presidential campaigns waged in the television era.

There was some urgency to that May mission. A new Gallup Poll had just put Vice President Bush 16 percentage points behind Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis. And the horse-race numbers weren't the worst of it. The same survey found that while roughly an equal number of voters liked Bush as disliked him, a staggering five voters liked Dukakis for every one who didn't.

Bush's strategists consoled themselves that Dukakis was passing through a false spring of popularity. Voters knew nothing about him, they reasoned, except that he had been defeating Jesse L. Jackson in one primary after another as he coasted toward the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.

Even so, the poll landed at Bush headquarters with the clang of an alarm. Bush supporters were already restive. The nation's headlines had been dominated all spring by words like "Meese," "Noriega" and "astrology." Now, here was Dukakis, roaring out of the chaos of the early Democratic primaries, more swiftly and smartly than they had anticipated. Members of the Bush high command figured they had better do something, and fast, lest the public's first impressions of this new face from New England harden into a bond that could not be undone later.

So they arranged for two groups of 15 voters -- all of them Democrats, all of them 1984 Reagan supporters -- to be assembled in Paramus, where they conducted the first "market test" of material they had been storing in their campaign research bank, ready for use in the event Dukakis became the Democratic nominee.

Hidden behind a two-way mirror, the five Bush aides -- campaign manager Lee Atwater, media consultant Roger Ailes, pollster Robert Teeter, chief of staff Craig L. Fuller, senior adviser Nicholas F. Brady -- watched as one of their researchers dispassionately told the New Jerseyites about Massachusetts' prisoner furlough program, about Dukakis' veto of legislation requiring teachers to lead their classes in the Pledge of Allegiance, about pollution in Boston Harbor, about everything else the rest of the nation has since been shown in 30-second paid dollops on television screens this fall.

At the start of that evening, all 30 of the human guinea pigs had been Dukakis supporters. By the end of it, only 15 were. "I realized right there that we had the wherewithal to win . . . and that the sky was the limit on Dukakis' negatives," Atwater, Bush's campaign manager, said.

Atwater prides himself as an expert on negative campaigning (it's the subject of his half-completed doctoral dissertation in political science), but even he underestimated the shelf life of the attacks they tested that night. What was conceived as a nasty opening volley to keep Dukakis from seizing a prohibitive summertime lead instead has run on and on, long enough to swallow the entire 1988 presidential campaign season, long enough to crowd out the give-and-take over the more substantive matters of policy that will face the next president.

"They started picking Dukakis' pocket early, and they never had to stop," lamented one veteran Democratic power-broker, who asked not to be identified. "They've woke up every morning this summer and this fall and they've been able to say to themselves, 'Hey, this furlough stuff is still working. Let's keep doing it.' I've never seen anything like it."

Nor has the American public. The voters this year have been exposed to more negative television advertising than ever. The Bush diet of ads is estimated at three negative ones for every two positive ones; by contrast, the two Ronald Reagan presidential campaigns used a mix that was overwhelmingly positive.

Predictably, the voters are turned off. Polls published in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal in the past week show that, by nearly 2 to 1, voters are dissatisfied with their Nov. 8 choices and wish someone else were running. Even in an era marked by cynicism toward politicians, those indices of disillusionment are at record highs for this stage of a presidential election.

"This is surely the most barren presidential campaign of my lifetime," said former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt, an early dropout from the Democratic nomination contest.

"You do get the sense that voters feel they sat down for a meal this fall, but they got nothing to eat," said a Democratic strategist.

For the past week on the campaign trail, Dukakis has been crying "foul," but many of his supporters worry that his response has been too little too late. The bitterness they express over the success of the Bush attacks is rivaled only by their anger and puzzlement at the ineptness of the Dukakis response. "The Democratic effort has been the worst-managed campaign in this century," the usually diplomatic Sen. Terry Sanford (D-N.C.) told reporters last week.

Such finger-pointing over tactics is likely to intensify after the election, but it begs a larger question: Was there something in the political climate of 1988 that permitted this campaign to be dominated by peripheral -- if powerfully symbolic -- issues, and by a succession of distortions and half-truths?

Scholars and political strategists say "Yes" to both questions though for different reasons.

GOP pollster Richard Wirthlin attributes the absence of any grand debate this year to the tranquility of the times. "It hasn't happened too frequently that we enjoy relatively high employment, relatively low inflation, and the real hope and concrete evidence of normalization of relations with our major adversary in the world," he said. "So you take those issues off the table, and what you are left with is the pledge and Willie Horton," he said referring to the convicted first-degree murder convict who raped a Maryland woman while on Massachusetts prison furlough.

Wirthlin contrasted the results of a poll he took this week with one he conducted at the same stage of the 1984 campaign. When voters were asked four years ago to name the most important problems facing the country, 77 percent listed either an economic or foreign policy concern, the issues that have the most obvious presidential cast. This year, only 35 percent did so, and of that only 8 percent named a foreign policy issue, an all-time low in his polling. Drugs and crime are now the issues uppermost on voters' minds, as they have been all year. They were listed by 20 percent of the voters this week, compared to only 2 percent in 1984.

Babbitt takes a slightly different view. "Yes, times are good, and peace and prosperity is an adequate description. But there are big issues out there, and the people know it. The difficulty is, they are over-the-horizon issues; they don't affect people's lives right now. So they're hard issues to bring home to the Rotary Club. It's easy to blame the candidates -- and they deserve some of the blame -- but it also reflects an American trait to drift when times are normal, and pull together in times of crisis."

Other Democrats said the Republicans figured they had to run a negative campaign because they were saddled with an unpopular nominee and a mound of pent-up problems facing the next president. "They realized that debating the policies to be addressed in 1989 was not a winning stage for them," said Ann Lewis, a Democratic consultant. "So they built this whole other stage of peripheral issues and said, 'Here, this is what this campaign is going to be about.' The result is you have a candidate running to be commissioner of prisons. What we may be seeing this time is a sort of Gresham's law of politics, where bad issues drive out good ones."

Some political scientists argue that the Bush campaign overestimated the early peril of its political situation and wound up running a campaign it will come to regret.

"Presidential campaigns are determined not principally by campaign events, but by larger, slower-moving events: partisan strength, strength of the economy, overall satisfaction with foreign affairs," said Greg Markus, a University of Michigan political scientist. "In those terms, any Republican presidential nominee would have had to work awfully hard to lose this election. I don't think they {the Bush campaign} had to choose this particular approach. They had to do something to erase the Dukakis lead, but a positive 1984 approach . . . would have been every bit as effective and more beneficial to a Bush presidency." But, as matters now stand, Markus said, if Bush is elected, it will be with no mandate and be greeted with a bitter congressional opposition, a polarized electorate and "the shortest honeymoon in history."

When Atwater and his colleagues huddled after the Paramus session, short honeymoons were the last thing on their minds. They were headed to Kennebunkport the next day -- where Bush was on a working vacation -- and they quickly agreed to recommend that Bush become the lead attack dog on these issues, an unconventional approach for a presidential campaign, where the dirty work usually is left to surrogates.

"We knew that if we left it to surrogates, it wouldn't have the impact," Atwater said. "Plus, Bush didn't have an image of personal meanness, so we knew he would be credible."

The following week at a GOP convention in Texas, Bush uncorked a new attack speech filled with all the red-meat attacks. He's barely paused to clear his throat ever since. And in the fall, with Bush having laid the groundwork, the campaign's attack ads started to kick in, ads filled with the sort of partial truths and clever distortions that have become standard political fare in gubernatorial and Senate races during the past decade, but that until now have not been used as heavily in presidential campaigns.

Bush -- in seeming defiance of the rule that an attacker will be nicked by his own poison darts -- immediately began to see his image improve. Being cast as a fighter helped erase the "wimp" image and using Dukakis as a foil to present his own ideas and values afforded Bush a clarity of definition he'd never found in previous campaigns.

But the far more potent impact was on Dukakis.

"He never recognized that those issues really could put him outside the mainstream," said one senior Bush adviser. "Each of them would have been three-day wonders if he had not failed to grasp that they were tapping something deeper and more significant that he needed to address.

"The Pledge of Allegiance went to the symbol of the nation, and essentially raised the question whether Dukakis believed we were a special nation, with a special role and responsibilities in the world . . . . An election campaign is in part a national tribal ritual, a rite of renewal, and if you don't respond in a way that says you know it, you send a subliminal signal to people that you are really outside the mainstream culture.

"When you translate the issue to defense, as we did with the tank ad, Dukakis was especially vulnerable because he had already raised doubts. People wondered if {he} will really defend America and its interests in the world . . . .

"{On} the ACLU and furlough {issues} . . . Dukakis allowed himself to be defined as the kind of liberal who would use the legal system to protect aberrant behavior, rather than stamp it out," the Bush adviser said.

As the attacks landed, the Dukakis campaign was not blind to their impact. Pollster Stanley Greenberg had been hired to conduct focus group research in California and Texas and found the furlough issue in particular was causing huge problems. "I argued in a memo in August that the furlough issue had become a very serious blockage to people wanting to find out more about Dukakis. They had a lurid vision of Dukakis because of this issue, and they needed to be able to rationalize it before they were willing to find out more about him. I pressed them to do this. There were lots of conference phone calls. Nothing happened."

At the time John Sasso was in the process of returning to take leadership of a campaign troubled by a gummed up decision-making and no clear lines of authority. Both he and Susan Estrich, the campaign manager he supplanted, declined to say why nothing was done for so long. But sources in the campaign said the problem was plain: Dukakis was making all the strategic decisions and he didn't want to respond.

"He was determined not to wage the campaign on their issues," said one Dukakis staff worker. "He wanted to campaign on his issues." That nonresponse violated the first golden rule of attack-man politics: "Unless you are a prohibitive front-runner," said campaign adviser Richard Moe, "an unanswered smear is believed."

Dukakis finally has begun fighting back, with new ads claiming the Bush ads are filled with half-truths, and noting that the federal prison system has had its own tragedies with furloughed prisoners. Is it too late? "Dukakis' problem now is that when he responds, he's talking about dirty tactics to a public that is saying 'a pox on both your houses,' " Wirthlin said. "You might gain a little, but there is an opportunity cost because you can't drive a consistent positive message."

The lesson of 1988 may be a pox on both houses, but -- since one campaign is going to win -- might it also be that a steady diet of attacks, distortions and peripheral issues can work, even in a presidential campaign?

"I hope not," said one highly placed Republican consultant. "My concern is that a lot of political professionals will conclude from this campaign that you don't need to talk about issues, that you need to attack your opponent early and often. But that's not the lesson. The lesson is that, in Dukakis, you have a candidate who, when a match was lit in his vicinity, poured gasoline all over himself."