Rep. Denny Smith (R-Ore.) may have the distinction of being the first member of Congress to exploit the Persian Gulf crisis for political gain. We predict he won't be the last.

Caught in his own little corner of the savings and loan scandal, Smith is considered one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the upcoming elections. For that reason, Smith is grasping at any mud within reach to throw at his opponent, Democrat Mike Kopetski. Why not put Kopetski in league with the devil, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein?

A few hours after Iraq invaded Kuwait, Kopetski said at a fund-raiser that he opposed a U.S. military response. Instead, he favored multilateral action against Saddam by the United Nations -- a position even President Bush was mulling at the time.

But Smith seized the moment and hustled to produce radio ads painting Kopetski as an apologist for Iraq and painting Saddam as the new Hitler.

We have learned that Smith has no room to accuse anyone of being soft on Saddam. Our associate Scott Sleek checked Smith's voting record. Just before the invasion of Kuwait, Smith voted against a bill that would have denied agricultural credits to Iraq. The bill was supposed to punish Saddam for his brutal human rights abuses, but Smith opposed it.

We asked Smith's spokesman to explain the vote. He said Smith was just following the party line.

Now Smith is hitting his rival with cheap shots. But it will take more than a few ads to get voters to forget his role in the S&L industry's collapse.

His involvement with three S&Ls that went down the tubes has had Democrats debating for months whether to demand a probe of Smith by the House ethics committee. The Democrats are reluctant, fearing Republicans would then expose Democrats who went to bat for failing thrifts.

Smith's office told us he would welcome a probe "to show how desperate these guys {Democrats} are to beat an incumbent." The spokesman said Democrats haven't pushed for an investigation because there is nothing to investigate. We disagree.

In 1987, Smith was a member of the board of directors of American Federal Savings and Loan Association of Oregon. The thrift was on the verge of collapse, and regulators proposed merging it with a healthier S&L. Smith reportedly refused to agree to the merger unless the Federal Home Loan Bank Board guaranteed he and other directors of American Federal would be exempt from any suits filed by the government if the S&L should fail.

Edwin J. Gray, then chief S&L regulator as head of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, refused to meet with Smith. Smith had written Gray a letter about a second S&L, complaining that the directors were being hounded by Gray's regulators. That S&L also collapsed.

A third S&L in Oregon lost $1.4 million on an industrial park it bought from Smith and others. That S&L also collapsed, and regulators put partial blame on the purchase of the failing industrial park.

It was self-serving tactics by people like Smith that contributed to the slow, costly death of the S&L industry. But members of Congress can be expected to use smoke screens, such as the gulf crisis, to divert voters' attention from the $500 billion crisis at home.