The presidential election is about competence, some Republicans have argued. No, it’s about ideology, Obama’s noxious statism, others argue. This week, we are reminded, it is also about character.

Mona Charen writes:

Nancy Pelosi, the leader who warned that we were losing “500 million jobs a month” without the stimulus bill and who said “God bless them” regarding Occupy Wall Street but condemned the tea party as “AstroTurf,” has declared that the Republican Party supports E. coli. True, it’s not news when Pelosi mangles the facts. But until her colleagues demote her, she remains the leader of House Democrats. Speaking at a fundraiser, she described the Republican Party as follows: “It’s an ideology. We shouldn’t have a government role. So reduce the police, the fire, the teachers — reduce their role.” As a mother, she continued, “You could depend on the government for one thing — it was about, you had to be able to trust the water that our kids drank and the food that they ate. But this is the E. coli club. They do not want to spend money to do that.” . . . .

Don’t look to the other body for relief. The Senate majority leader, who holds a post usually associated with at least a minimal level of dignity, has descended into outright McCarthyism — claiming that “the word is out” that Mitt Romney hadn’t paid taxes in 10 years. How did the “word” get out? Some anonymous caller supposedly told it to Harry Reid. . . .

Now, an Obama Super PAC, Priorities USA, has issued an ad that is so cartoonish that it seems to have come straight from The Onion. A former employee of GST Steel, Joe Soptic, accuses Mitt Romney of closing the plant. Actually, the plant was shut down two years after Romney left Bain. Soptic then relates that his wife became ill, but because he had lost his health coverage due to the plant closing, she couldn’t afford health coverage and died of cancer. Not quite. The plant closed in 2001. She died in 2006. Ranae Soptic didn’t lose health coverage because of what happened to her husband. She was covered by her own employer, until an injury caused her to lose her job. The ad closes with Soptic saying, “I do not think Mitt Romney realizes what he’s done to anyone, and furthermore I do not think Mitt Romney is concerned.”

Space did not permit Charen to list the accusation that Romney was a “felon” or the barrage of false ads on Romney’s “outsourcing.” Her column was written before Obama took Reid’s accusation about 10 years of non-tax payment (pretty nervy, huh, when he was running for president in 2008, right?) and dropped it into his own ad. Aside, from beating his children and drowning kittens, there is no conduct of which Romney has not been falsely accused. (But then again, it’s a long time until November.)

The Wall Street Journal editors describe the phenomenon this way: Obama is “running the first postmodern Presidential campaign, now organized almost exclusively around allegations about his opponent that bear no relation to the observable universe.” In other words, it is a campaign based on character assassination and lies. There is no other way to describe the accusations hurled at Romney (he didn’t pay his taxes for 10 years; he killed Ranae Soptic).

The candidate who ran in 2008 with the notion that Americans were foolish enough to think “hope and change” was more than a sophomoric aphorism is now the president who thinks Americans will buy any falsehood. As the Journal editors put it, “The point is that more than any President we can recall, Mr. Obama isn’t trying to persuade voters that he deserves to stay in office because of his philosophy, record or positive vision for the country. Rather, his case is that he deserves re-election because Mr. Romney is worse, and he is so very much worse because of things that were invented in the West Wing but are detached from reality.”

There are several ways for Romney to respond. I do not include letting the media do its job since Romney is a practical man not given to self-delusion.

First, he can call the president out himself as he did this week on Bill Bennett’s radio talk show. “It’s interesting too when the various fact checkers look at some of these charges in the Obama ads and they say that they’re wrong and inaccurate and yet he keeps on just running them. In the past, when people pointed out that something was inaccurate, why, campaigns either pulled the ad. They were embarrassed. Today, they just blast ahead. You know, I am seeing some of the ads out there. I don’t know whatever happened to a campaign of hope and change. I thought he was a new kind of politician. But instead, his campaign and the people working with him have focused almost exclusively on personal attacks and not at all on the issues of the day, which is how to get more jobs and more take home pay. It’s really disappointing.” Not bad, but it’s not simply “disappointing.” That level of mendacity is disqualifying.

The next option is to return the fire in kind. This is the president who hired 9/11 truther Van Jones. He’s the one who wanted to force a mosque on the ashes of Ground Zero, despite the revulsion of New Yorkers. This is the president who whispers to a foreign adversary that he’ll have more ”flexibility” after an election. Now, all of these things are true, so it’s not exactly returning Obama fire in kind. But Romney could, I suppose, begin to take a hammer to the president’s aura. Still, that seems to be cutting him a break since this would move the debate away from the most important issue to most voters, the Obama economy.

Another option is for Romney to mock the president (“George Washington: I cannot tell a lie. Barack Obama: Romney killed a little old lady.”) Running ads of 2008 Obama (“hope and change”) vs. 2012 Obama (“lie and lie some more”) fits this bill. Yet, somehow this seems unpresidential for Romney, who enjoys a stature the president is quickly shedding.

The last option is the tried-and-true one: Get a VP, let him shred the president day and night, and leave Romney free to talk about the big issues. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would be the obvious, and hilarious, figure to do the job. He’s destroyed the teachers union’s image, so Obama should be easy work for him.

Then there is Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who wields a stiletto instead of a billy club. At the Heritage Foundation last year he described Obama’s dereliction on entitlement reform, “[I]nstead of working with us on areas where we agree, the president has opted for divisive rhetoric and the broken politics of the past. He is going from town to town, impugning the motives of Republicans, setting up straw men and scapegoats, and engaging in intellectually lazy arguments, as he tries to build support for punitive tax hikes on job creators.”

The Romney team will have to figure out the favorite approach, or maybe decide on an array of tactics. What they cannot do is let the president escape accountability not only for his record but for his defiling of the political debate. Really, is it too much to ask to have a president whose conduct and rhetoric are admirable?