House Democratic leaders yesterday sharply condemned an advertising campaign launched by Common Cause that criticizes 13 Democrats for taking campaign money from special interests, saying the tactic has eroded the organization's credibility on upcoming campaign finance reform legislation.

The Common Cause campaign targeted the House Democrats in newspapers in their districts last week and linked their receipt of political action committee (PAC) contributions to the savings and loan scandal.

House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), in a rare flash of anger, denounced the campaign as "scurrilous" and one that "uses tactics of innuendo and inference that are typical of the worst elements of campaign advertising."

Describing the newspaper ads as the "lowest point" in the history of the self-styled citizens' lobby, Foley said it would "unquestionably" limit Common Cause's effectiveness as the House struggles to craft campaign finance reform legislation.

In the advertisements -- and similar fliers handed out by Common Cause members in the 13 lawmakers' districts -- the organization linked the costly S&L scandal to the "corrupt" system of campaign finance. Each ad listed the amount of PAC contributions received by the individual lawmaker in recent years.

"S&L interests gave members of Congress millions," read the ads. "Taxpayers were ripped off for billions . . . and Congress has done nothing."

Some House members targeted by the ads complained yesterday that the campaign unfairly linked them to the S&L scandal and inaccurately implied that they received large campaign donations from the thrift industry.

"Constituents are left with the false impression that {the House members} are beholden to the industry," said Rep. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.). One of the 13 members targeted, Torricelli said he has received only one S&L-related campaign contribution out of thousands, and has a good record of voting against thrift industry interests.

Common Cause President Fred Wertheimer defended the campaign, saying it is designed to build public pressure for Democrats to toughen an evolving campaign finance bill that currently contains no aggregate limit on the amount of PAC contributions members of Congress could accept.

"We're in a fight right now," said Wertheimer, who said the 13 House members were selected not for any ties to the thrift industry but because they represent a "cross-section" of the House. "We believe it is essential to pass real campaign reform. . . . We are talking about cleaning up a corrupt system, a system that helped the S&L scandal happen."

Wertheimer said a separate ad campaign has been directed at seven Republican and two Democratic members of the Senate, urging them not to block campaign finance reform there.

But several Democrats said that Common Cause had effectively taken itself out of the debate over campaign finance reform by its tactics.

"There's only one thing worse than being wrong in Washington and that's being irrelevant," said Rep. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), another one of those targeted. "This kind of sleazy ad disqualifies Fred Wertheimer as a credible participant in this process."

Rep. Beryl Anthony Jr. (D-Ark.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who is the target of a similar radio ad campaign by the Ralph Nader group Public Citizen, also denounced the effort by Common Cause.

Accusing Wertheimer of "sleazeball politics," Anthony said, "He's damaged his standing in Congress and Common Cause's standing in Congress."

Wertheimer, however, said that similar predictions were made when Common Cause called for an ethics investigation into former House speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.), but the organization went on to play a major role in winning enactment of a congressional ethics reform and pay raise package last year.