A fuzzy picture of Texas oilman Clayton Williams fills the television screen as sinister music plays in the background. Damaging headlines about the Republican candidate for governor flash on the screen: "Lawsuits Allege Williams a 'Deadbeat.' "

The commercial, with its flurry of questionable charges and use of newspaper headlines, bears the trademarks of veteran Democratic media consultant Robert Squier. In what the Houston Chronicle later called a "clear distortion," Squier deleted the second part of the headline -- "Richards Discloses" -- thus obscuring the fact that the "deadbeat" charge was made by Williams's opponent, Democrat Ann Richards.

"That was a mistake," Squier said. "We should not have done that, and we got called on it."

As newspapers have taken on the mission of policing political commercials this year, Squier, a widely acknowledged master of negative advertising, has become a frequent target. Ironically, no consultant in recent years has been more outspoken in urging greater media scrutiny of campaign ads.

"You've just got to be much tougher with people like us as we make our spots and advance our claims," he told reporters at a 1988 forum.

But Squier now calls much of the media coverage of campaign advertising superficial and misleading. Defending the work of his Capitol Hill-based firm, Squier-Eskew-Knapp Communications, he said: "We're the biggest company in this business. I think we're scrupulously careful in how we do it. When we make a mistake, it's news."

Squier said too many national reporters are "parachuting into a campaign" and "reporting the back and forth between spin artists from each campaign." The Washington Post, he said, is "doing 10-second analyses of 30-second spots. There's no context. You're worse than we are."

Squier's partner, Carter Eskew, said the press-as-policeman role is "elitist" and contains "a hint that voters are stupid."

Squier, 56, is less well known than Roger Ailes, an architect of President Bush's harsh 1988 campaign and his partner as an occasional analyst on NBC-TV's "Today" Show. But Squier, an accomplished cinematographer who has made award-winning films on William Faulkner and Herman Melville, commands great respect in the media business. Having helped to elect nearly a fifth of the Senate, he is able to command a $60,000 fee on top of the standard commission paid to political consultants of 15 percent of the cost of media time purchased by the campaign.

Recent Squier-Eskew-Knapp ads have stirred controversy by charging: That former Massachusetts attorney general Francis X. Bellotti, defeated in his bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination by Squier client John R. Silber, was "plagued by questions about his corruption record." The commercial appeared to cast doubt on Bellotti's integrity by flashing a Boston Globe headline -- "Questions Linger over Bellotti's Corruption Record" -- although the story referred to Bellotti's record in prosecuting official wrongdoing.

That Michigan Senate Majority Leader John Engler, the GOP candidate for governor, "voted to let dangerous criminals out of state prisons early." The ad featured a picture of a handgun turning toward the viewer. The Detroit Free Press noted that Squier's candidate, Gov. James J. Blanchard (D), had put the early-release law into effect, and that Engler later secured funds for prison expansion and voted to repeal the early-release law.

A Free Press editorial said that Blanchard's ads "do enough violence to the truth to rival the Willie Horton campaign." Free Press columnist Hugh McDiarmid called the ads "smarmy, outrageously simplistic" and "flat-out garbage," while the Grand Rapids Press described them as a "cheap," "stupid" and "demagogic."

That Texas candidate Williams was involved in "over 300 lawsuits documented in court records and newspapers. Mountains of debts. Millions in junk bonds. Allegations of fraud and price-fixing."

The Dallas Morning News found that some of the suits were filed by Williams against other parties, while the junk bonds were used by someone who was buying a Williams company.

"This year {Squier} has gone over the line in several cases," said Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist, calling some of the ads "completely deceptive" and "highly misleading." He said Squier has "always been very hard-hitting. That's why some candidates want him."

Harriett Woods, the unsuccessful 1986 Democratic Senate candidate in Missouri, said she fired Squier because his first ad for her -- implying that her Republican opponent, then governor Christopher S. Bond, was partially responsible for foreclosing on a couple's farm -- made her seem like just another mud-slinging pol. Woods supported airing the commercial but turned against it and Squiers in the face of criticisms that it was unfair.

"Bob thought he was going to win an Emmy over it, but I wanted to win the election," Woods said. " . . . He's very preoccupied with his own role and his own product. He just didn't understand who I was. He has a certain technique and he uses it."

Woods said she set up a lunch with Squier because she felt they were not relating. "I came to Washington, had the lunch, and Bob spent the whole time talking about himself," she said.

Squier called Woods's account of the episode "sad." He said he wanted to reserve the foreclosure ad for later use in the campaign but that Woods decided to air it immediately "over our objections."

Some see such techniques as the essence of political advertising. "What Squier does, and he is without peer in America, is to make an argument for a candidate that burns a message in, spot after spot," said pollster Doug Schoen, who has worked with and against Squier this year.

"There is no better practitioner of negative politics than Bob Squier. I don't mean character assassination, but creating a contrast between his candidate and the opposition."

The press's new role as advertising referee was sparked last January by Washington Post columnist David S. Broder, who urged reporters to blow the whistle on deceptive commercials. The Post and many other newspapers have devoted considerable space to such critiques this year.

Broder said Squier is fair game because "he has become probably the most public advocate in the consulting business of how other people ought to change their practices. But in his campaigns, he's in there kneeing and gouging with the best of them."

Squier, recalling that Broder had written of his intention to be a "crank" on the subject, said, "If you start with a point of view that is cranky, it colors what you do."

Squier broke into the business as a college student in 1956 when he made television commercials for then-Minnesota governor Orville Freeman (D). By 1968, he was handling Hubert H. Humphrey's presidential campaign, and in 1976 he worked in Jimmy Carter's successful campaign.

Squier cemented his reputation during this period when he helped elect John Y. Brown governor of Kentucky by putting him on the air with his beauty-queen wife, Phyllis George. He also helped elevate an obscure Florida state senator named Bob Graham to the governor's office by having him work at 100 jobs, from bellhop to chicken-plucker.

"He's not just a television person," said Graham, who is now in the Senate. "He understands candidates and their idiosyncracies and shapes the campaign to them, as opposed to just using a single cookbook."

As the successes piled up, from former Virginia governor Charles S. Robb in 1981 to Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) in 1988, so did Squier's reputation for eviscerating the opposition.

The firm helped Lautenberg trounce Republican Pete Dawkins by opening the campaign with a mocking ad by Eskew that ended with the line, "Be Real, Pete." Another spot charged that Dawkins, as an Army officer, failed to stop pollution at a California base, although the Bergen Record later found that Dawkins had nothing to do with the problem.

Returning to the pollution theme last year, the Squier firm, again with an ad created by Eskew, helped blow Rep. Jim Courter (R) out of the New Jersey governor's race with a first-strike ad accusing him of keeping toxic waste barrels on property he owned. Courter said the barrels contained heating oil left by a midnight dumper and were cleaned up.

Courter called the ads "very vicious. . . . The guy makes a lot of money by hitting below the belt. He did a good job of cutting me up. I was cut up in pieces in about 20 days. . . . They created a demonic image of Jim Courter."

But Eskew said that in critiquing the barrels ad, The Post ignored his efforts to document the pollution and "totally bought the Courter spin on the thing" (Post reporters say the documentation was unpersuasive). Eskew said the barrels symbolized Courter's poor environmental record. "Yes, you grab for the most sensational example," he said.

Squier's tactics have drawn fire in several gubernatorial races. In Massachusetts, Bellotti campaign manager Mark Roosevelt has described Squier's ads as a "smear" based on "sleazy innuendo" and "National Enquirer-style . . . sensationalism."

In Texas, Squier helped state Treasurer Richards win the Democratic nomination by raising ethics questions about her two primary opponents ("the worst resumes money can buy"). Gordon Hensley, a spokesman for GOP candidate Williams, said, "Squier deals in psychological terror, outrageous distortions and bald-faced lies, but beyond that, he does great negative television."

In Michigan, where Squier's ad accused Engler of "a dangerous record on crime," Engler campaign director Dan Pero said the spots were "disgusting" and distorted Engler votes on crime by taking them out of context.

But Squier said such votes suggest a larger pattern. "We could have produced a mini-series on Engler's crime voting record." he said.