WASHINGTON -- It's presidential campaign season, and the news media character cops are walking the beat again, poking into the backgrounds of the candidates.
Everything, it seems, is fair game.
That rattling sound you may have heard this week was another skeleton tumbling out of Sen. Phil Gramm's closet.
The tough-on-crime Texan was accused by a liberal magazine of having lobbied to get a convicted drug dealer paroled in 1979. Mr. Gramm, who says he had no part in the incident, blamed a former aide.
Only a few days earlier, Mr. Gramm, who is trying to persuade religious conservatives to support him, had been forced to admit that he once invested thousands of dollars in an R-rated movie deal.
For a politician struggling to get his candidacy off the ground, such disclosures could be devastating. But according to Gramm aides, the harm, if any, has been slight.
"We haven't seen any impact," said Gary Koops, the campaign's press secretary.
Already, there has been a flurry of newsworthy disclosures involving the 1996 Republican presidential contenders, in addition to Mr. Gramm. They range from California Gov. Pete Wilson's hiring of an undocumented Mexican worker to Kansas Sen. Bob Dole's use of a tax-free foundation to hide political contributions.
Most of these stories have lasted only a few days, attracting relatively little attention and causing no major political damage. Suddenly, the operative question seems to be: Is it too early in the season for any of this to matter, or do voters just not care anymore?
Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia professor who has written about political scandals and the news media, has a hunch that the public's interest in the private lives of candidates is dwindling.
"It is just that the public really doesn't seem to care," he said, noting that Bill Clinton survived attacks on his character in the 1992 campaign that might have finished him if he had been running four years earlier, when Gary Hart was driven from the race over allegations of womanizing.
"Maybe the fact that it's become more routine for politicians to be nitpicked, it causes people not to pay as much attention to it," said Charles Black, a Gramm adviser now working in his sixth presidential campaign. He also noted that only a relative handful of Americans -- probably less than 10 percent of the electorate -- is currently paying attention to the 1996 campaign.
While a jaded or indifferent electorate may be one factor, political veterans point to a number of others, including more sophisticated damage-control by the presidential candidates and greater restraint by the news media in circulating unsubstantiated charges.
Still, the level of scrutiny that the candidates are getting is, if anything, higher than ever.
"There is not a question that's off the table to a candidate," said Ed Rogers, a former Bush White House aide. "Every possible subject is fair game this time around."
To anticipate questions from reporters and attacks from political rivals, many candidates turn their opposition research teams on themselves. The Gramm campaign hired a political consultant who once worked in law enforcement to pick apart Mr. Gramm's background for booby traps.
Going beyond the computer data bases that modern campaigns have come to rely upon, he delved into public records in compiling a dossier on the 52-year-old senator's personal and public background. He apparently didn't know that there were boxes of papers, dating from Mr. Gramm's freshman term in Congress in the late 1970s, at the Texas A&M; University library.
That's where a writer for Mother Jones magazine found two letters from Mr. Gramm's office that sought parole for a convicted drug dealer, William Doyle, who was later sent back to prison on drug charges.
Mr. Gramm, who is campaigning on a pledge to put criminals, especially drug felons, in prison "and keep them there," says he never intervenes in pardon or parole matters; his office released a statement by a former Gramm aide, a neighbor of Doyle's brother, who said she was personally responsible for sending the letters and Mr. Gramm was unaware of her efforts.
"Facts will always kill a scurrilous story," said Mr. Koops, the Gramm campaign press secretary, who noted that a number of news organizations, including the New York Times and The Sun, didn't find the Mother Jones allegations worth reporting.
A potentially more damaging report about Mr. Gramm's R-rated movie investment, in a recent New Republic magazine article, also failed to make much of a dent. During a nine-stop trip in the four days after the report appeared, Mr. Koops said, the candidate was asked about it only once.
"There is still a disconnect between political punditry inside the Beltway and what matters out in America," Mr. Koops said. Mr. Gramm also worked hard to counter the report, personally contacting many religious conservative leaders before the article appeared to give his side of the story.
Other Republicans noted that Mr. Gramm's $7,500 investment in his brother-in-law's skin flick occurred in 1974, before he had entered politics. "The statute of limitations had run on that one," Mr. Rogers said.
"What gets you in trouble is when you do something that plays to your negative stereotype," he explained. "For example, if George Bush had done something wimpy or if Ronald Reagan appeared inattentive or out-of-it."
For that reason, perhaps the most damaging story thus far in the campaign was a report that Governor Wilson and his former wife had hired an undocumented worker as a maid in the late 1970s, when he was mayor of San Diego. Mr. Wilson, who is often accused of tailoring his views to the political mood of the moment, is adopting a tough anti-immigrant line in his 1996 presidential effort.
Republican insiders believe that the story about the maid may well have been leaked by the Wilson campaign, which apparently discovered the problem as part of a pre-announcement check into the governor's background.
By putting the story out -- along with a statement by Mr. Wilson's former wife taking responsibility for the failure to pay Social Security taxes for the maid -- the Wilson campaign may have deliberately launched a pre-emptive strike on itself, on the theory that the story would come out later at a more vulnerable moment.
"If you've got any troublesome nuggets," Mr. Rogers said, "throw them out now," when few people are paying attention.
Mr. Sabato, who is working on a revised edition of "Feeding Frenzy," his critical account of how the news media cover politics, agrees that getting bad news out early is a smart political strategy. Even though a negative story may well be rehashed later, as the campaign progresses, it's likely to get less prominence the second time around as "old news," he said.
Not that any politician welcomes an embarrassing news story.
During the last presidential primary campaign, news reports about a 1970s land deal involving candidate Clinton got little attention. This week's indictment of Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker by the Whitewater grand jury is a potent reminder of the way that a political skeleton can sometimes take on a life of its own.