Near the end of a televised debate Sunday night in Cedar Rapids, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) turned to his Republican opponent, Rep. Thomas J. Tauke, and said: "Let's agree with a handshake that we're going to have a positive campaign, that we won't mention each other in ads. If you'd agree on that, I'd sure appreciate that and I'm sure the people of Iowa would, too."

Harkin, smiling, took two steps toward Tauke and held out his hand. Tauke, bewildered and angry, shook it. He didn't want to, Tauke said later, but realized that a picture of him refusing the handshake would not be flattering.

Was Harkin's offer a noble effort to keep mud out of the campaign or a ploy to preempt any critical television strikes by Tauke? The Republican is trailing in the polls and, in the minds of strategists, needs to focus on Harkin's weak spots if he is to catch up.

Harkin said he was serious. He confronted Tauke in the studio after the debate and pulled a six-point contract from his pocket that had his signature on it. The contract pledged the candidates not to mention each other in their ads and to prevent interest groups from attacking the other as well. Harkin said he was willing, for instance, to prevent the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), which has targeted Tauke for defeat, from continuing its anti-Tauke campaign.

Tauke rejected the idea, saying that it "would be like signing a non-aggression pact with Saddam Hussein." He called Harkin's maneuver "a cheap ploy" and noted that before the debate he had seen a leaflet put out by the Iowa Democratic Party that he said misrepresented his views on Head Start and prenatal care programs.

This seems to be part of a trend. In the Texas gubernatorial race, which is far uglier than the Senate contest in Iowa, front-runner Clayton Williams (R) offered a similar truce to Ann Richards (D), who rejected it as a hypocritical ploy.