HOUSTON, JULY 9 -- An intriguing pattern has emerged from some of the nation's most hotly contested gubernatorial primaries this year: The candidate who attacked first finished second.

That does not necessarily represent a trend, but to many members of the American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC) here for their annual conference this week, results from primaries in California, Texas and Alabama have confirmed what they have long believed about the risks of political attack ads.

"Going negative is like juggling a hand grenade," said Raymond Strother, co-chairman of the conference. "You never know if it's going to blow up in your face."

That doesn't mean consultants are pulling back from attack ads as a staple of the modern media campaign. The four panelists who participated in a discussion of "confrontational television" here this afternoon agreed that the technique is, if anything, growing more popular. "It's kind of like roller derby," said Republican consultant Dick Leggitt. "If somebody gets away with a cheap shot in one campaign, everybody else is going to try to do something similar in the next."

"Negative ads work because an increasing number of Americans no longer trust their political institutions," added George Shipley, a Democratic pollster.

On the other hand, the same cynicism that makes negative ads work can also make them backfire -- as a number of candidates have discovered this year.

"People learned the wrong lesson from the 1988 {presidential} campaign," said Democratic media consultant Frank Greer. "The wrong lesson is that negative ads work. The right lesson is that if you stand up and fight back, you can beat them. If you don't, you'll lose."

Greer, who did not attend the conference here, has become one of the consulting industry's most effective counterpunchers. In the 1988 West Virginia governor's race, the 1989 Virginia governor's race and last month's Alabama gubernatorial primary, he waited for the other side to launch the first attack, then went on the air and branded them negative campaigners. In Alabama, after Don Siegelman ran an ad that implied that Greer's client, Paul Hubbert, defended child molesters, Greer countered with a Hubbert ad that said: "It has become clear that a desperate Don Siegelman will say and do anything. But we're not going to let him get away with it." Hubbert won a runoff against Siegelman.

"People are fed up with slime-ball tactics, and you can be quite successful making an issue of them," Greer said in an interview. He noted that polls he took in Alabama and Virginia showed that, by ratios ranging from 3-to-1 to 5-to-1, voters blamed his client's opponent for the negativism of the campaign -- even though, in addition to making an issue of the opponent's tactics, Greer's ads attacked the opponent on other fronts.

In the California Democratic gubernatorial primary this spring, it was a positive television spot -- a dramatic black-and-white film clip showing Dianne Feinstein calmly asserting control as she announced the murder of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone -- that catapulted her into the lead. Reacting to the impact of that ad, Feinstein's opponent, state Attorney General John Van de Kamp, went on the attack with ads that sought to debunk her claim that she had been an effective mayor. About 80 percent of Feinstein's ads were positive, but she did run a graphic TV spot in the last week of the primary that showed a victim of the Hillside Strangler and accused Van de Kamp of mishandling the notorious murder case when he was Los Angeles district attorney.

In the Texas Democratic gubernatorial primary -- the most extravagant TV mudfest so far this year -- state Treasurer Ann Richards did not throw the first punch, but she gave as good as she got from her two opponents. The question now is whether she can recover from the ordeal in time to defeat the Republican nominee, businessman Clayton Williams, this fall.

"These scars live with you a while," said Strother, who worked for former governor Mark White, one of Richards's primary opponents. "Ann's great advantage was that she was not seen as a conventional politician. But when the attacks started, she resorted to very conventional techniques."

The AAPC, mindful of mounting public criticism and press scrutiny of campaign ads, has scheduled a conference with academics and ethicists at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg early next year.

"We hope to publish a series of case studies from previous elections to say what we think was right or wrong," said AAPC President Brad O'Leary. "If some of our members were to repeatedly violate these guidelines, we would say we don't want you in the umbrella of our organization."