SPRINGFIELD, ILL. -- A month ago, Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Edgar was being beaten up by his opponent on an issue that matters a great deal to Illinois voters: taxes. His double-digit lead in the polls had all but disappeared.

"We needed to change the subject," recalled Don Sipple, Edgar's media adviser. "We decided to drop the bomb," said Edgar, the Illinois secretary of state.

The "bomb" landed on Sept. 6. It was an ad that sharply criticized the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Attorney General Neil Hartigan, for his role as a director of a savings and loan association that failed.

Like so many political ads, this one was riddled with subtle deceptions.

It tacitly encouraged viewers to assume that the failure was connected to the current S&L debacle, that depositors lost money and that Hartigan had been guilty of wrongdoing. Actu-

CAMPAIGN CROSSROADS POLITICS IN AN AGE OF CYNICISM ally, the S&L had gone under in 1968, depositors were made whole and charges against Hartigan were dropped nearly two decades ago. Not a word of this was in the ad.

Within 24 hours, Hartigan's campaign retaliated -- not with a rebuttal, but with a distorted counterattack. It hyped a job-selling "scandal" in the secretary of state's office, a "scandal" that actually was an isolated, low-level incident that Edgar's office had helped to ferret out.

Since then, it's been bombs away this fall -- in Illinois and around the country. Despite reams of bad press, distorted political ads continue to be the coin of the realm in political campaigns. In an age of voter cynicism, they continue to capitalize on the very mistrust they help to foster.

When a cross-fire of these kind of ads begins, two rules of engagement stand out: Rebuttals rarely catch up with accusations, and issues rarely compete with character. In Illinois, where campaigns for governor and the Senate are underway and where voters have told pollsters and a team of Washington Post reporters that they want the campaign to be about taxes, education and crime, these axioms are being tested anew this fall.

"We're in a 30-second world and the time goes by very quickly," said Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster working on the reelection campaign of Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.). Like Hartigan, Simon has been attacked for his involvement with a failed S&L and has chosen not to respond on the air with a point-by-point denial. "If Candidate X raises four questions about Candidate Y, the answers always take longer than the questions," Maslin said.

"There are times when I'll do an absolute rebuttal, usually when an absolute lie has been lodged," said Joe Slade White, Hartigan's media consultant. "But I will always launch a counterattack in the same ad -- otherwise, all I'm doing is having the conversation the other side wants to have."

When the Edgar campaign aired its ad about Hartigan's role in the 1968 failure of Chicago's Apollo Savings & Loan, nobody was caught by surprise. Although the episode had been raised against Hartigan in previous races without creating a ripple, strategists for both camps reasoned that the current S&L scandal would give it new traction.

Before anything went on the air, both campaigns "simulated" the episode: they presented focus groups of voters with each side's version of what happened at Apollo, and listened to their reactions. Based on this market testing, which is now routinely used in campaigns, the Hartigan camp had a rebuttal ad "in the can" two weeks before the Edgar attack spot ran.

But it was never used. By the time the Apollo attack was made, the Hartigan campaign had other strategic interests it wanted to pursue. Hartigan had struck a vein in late August with an ad spotlighting Edgar's support for making permanent a 20 percent state income tax surcharge that is due to expire next summer. The ad showed the word "TAXES" pounding a map of Illinois into submission to the stirring strains of the "Anvil Chorus."

A Chicago Tribune poll taken shortly after the tax ad appeared showed that the underdog Hartigan, who has said he opposes at least half of the permanent tax increase and will disclose his position on the other half before Election Day, had pulled to within 4 percentage points of Edgar.

Hartigan did not want to risk losing that momentum by getting sidetracked into a point-by-point denial of Apollo. That night, once the Edgar ad appeared, Hartigan had his media consultant produce a counterattack ad that sought to keep the focus of the campaign on the tax issue and to open a character attack on Edgar.

The counterattack ad was based on an incident involving a drunk-driving hearing examiner in Edgar's secretary of state's office who sold his $25,000-a-year job to another lawyer for $40,000. Edgar's office uncovered the sale, suspended those involved, but so far has declined to fire them, pending the outcome of an independent investigation.

Even though they had gotten a dose of their own medicine, Edgar's strategists say they are delighted that the campaign dialogue had moved from issues to character. "Our goal from the start has been to turn the tax issue into a character issue," said Sipple, Edgar's media adviser. Poll data reveal why. Voters' initial impression of Edgar, a clean-cut figure who has built an Eagle Scout reputation by focusing on issues such as enforcement of laws against drunken driving, is 4 to 1 positive; their initial impression of Hartigan, a Robert Duvall look-alike who came up through the Chicago Democratic machine, is a less exalted 2 to 1 positive.

"Voters are skeptical about anything a politician says on taxes, and we think this helps us," said Sipple, noting that after the 1982 and 1986 governors' races, Gov. James R. Thompson (R), a former Sipple client, broke his campaign promise not to raise taxes. "Our simulation of the way the tax issue will play this fall is that Round One goes to Hartigan but Round Two goes to us. We're going to come across as the straight shooter, and paint Hartigan as the typical politician who promises anything."

"Most voters, when they go to the polls, make a judgment about which of the candidates has personal qualities that they want -- not about what they say about issue A, B or C," said Robert M. Teeter, a GOP pollster whose clients include Edgar, the Illinois GOP Senate nominee, Rep. Lynn Martin, and President Bush.

Once the campaign moves onto the character plane, however, perspective can often be the first casualty. A new Edgar ad broadcast this week links Hartigan's allegedly self-serving behavior in the Apollo S&L episode with the fact that taxpayers have had to pony up "more than $100,000" to pay for his residence in Springfield, the state capital. What the ad does not mention is that state law requires statewide elected officials to have a Springfield residence and provides for state funds to pay for it. Nor does it mention that the $100,000 figure is Hartigan's aggregate rent for 12 years, eight as attorney general, four as lieutenant governor.

Hartigan, meantime, has already focus group-tested similar "silver bullets" -- embarrassing nuggets culled from opposition research on Edgar's career as a state legislator, Thompson aide, and, since 1983, secretary of state. This week, they began airing television ads about them in the form of 10-second sniper fire, loosely modeled after the old "Excedrin Headache No. 89" formula.

"I don't have to turn Edgar into a threat to Western civilization, but voters react to the dissonance," said Hartigan media consultant White. "If you start out with a Boy Scout image and you are shown to have problems, the fall from grace will be more steep."

The press has been treating all of this with a grain of salt. Although the Illinois newspapers are not critiquing every ad that appears, a practice that has taken root this year in newspapers in California, Florida, Texas and other states, several have run editorials criticizing the distortions and trivialization of the ads. "We're pushing as hard as we can to expose deceptions," said Thomas Hardy, political writer for the Chicago Tribune, "but we haven't formalized it in an ad-watch column. I'm not sure we're going to have that luxury."

As for the voters, their cynicism grows deeper. On the evening the Edgar "bomb" dropped, Ray Maczko, 53, an engineer who lives in the Chicago suburb of Burbank, was interviewed after seeing a story about it on the TV news. "I hate these mudslinging campaigns," he said. "I'm not interested in what someone did 25 years ago. Everyone has a past. I'm interested in what they'll do today."

Staff writer Maralee Schwartz contributed to this report.