WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Fighting to salvage a political career that is probably beyond salvation, Sen. Bob Packwood is having it both ways. With the approval of his Republican colleagues in the Senate, Packwood is avoiding public hearings at which the details of the charges of sexual misconduct against him might be spelled out by the women who have raised them. At the same time, the Oregon senator is using his position to conduct a public rebuttal of those undetailed charges in television and newspaper interviews. One result is that the Senate Republicans who voted to let him off the hook on public hearings are beginning to look even more naive and out of touch with the real world than they appeared to be when they made the decision last month -- so out of touch, in fact, that they may be forced to reverse themselves and allow the hearings after all. Another result probably is a deepening of suspicion among voters at large that the politicians in Washington -- or at least in the high and mighty Senate -- are arrogant enough to consider themselves insulated from public opinion and free to do whatever they choose. Packwood describes his new public relations offensive as a decision that it is "time to fight fire with fire." And he insists he has been the victim of a "smear campaign" designed to rob him of his chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee and perhaps even of his seat in the Senate. "I have avoided public confrontation with the accusers. However, they have not shown me the same measure of respect," Packwood said. So, he went on, no more turning the other cheek to "personal attacks." In fact, however, Packwood is conducting a very carefully controlled counterattack based on selective rebuttal of some of the incidents of sexual misconduct reported by 17 different women as having occurred between 1969 and 1990. And, absent either direct testimony or cross-examination, he gets the best of it. Thus, for example, Packwood questions why a campaign volunteer among his accusers continued to volunteer after he had imposed himself on her. That may be a legitimate question, but unless you hear the woman's explanation of the story, there is no way to make a judgment. Similarly, Packwood hints that there is a lot more to the story of an office employee who complained about his behavior toward her in 1990. If that is the case, the place to explain it is in a public forum in which both he and the employee would be subject to examination. In his new offensive, Packwood has made a particular point of denying a charge by a woman that when she was a 17-year-old high school senior serving as an intern in his office in 1983, he came to her home and hugged and kissed her against her will. Now Packwood produces a letter in which the young woman thanked him for a letter of recommendation he wrote in her behalf, suggesting she would not have written the letter had she really been mistreated. But anyone who knows 17-year-olds can imagine all sorts of circumstances under which such a bread-and-butter letter would have been written. The Senate Ethics Committee, while splitting along party lines on the hearings question, agreed there had been "substantial credible evidence" of misconduct by Packwood uncovered during its inquiries. But now the Oregon Republican is trying to cast it all in doubt by choosing what he sees as weak spots in the case against him. Packwood also is dealing publicly with another allegation that apparently won't be covered in hearings: that he altered diaries provided to the committee during its investigation. "No altered diaries were ever given to the commission," he says. But the committee had included that issue among those on which there was "substantial credible evidence." Packwood casts his decision against hearings in the most benign light. "What I want to do now is get it over with and go on with life. I've got serious duties in the Senate," he said on ABC's "Good Morning, America" program. Packwood may indeed have "serious duties" to perform as chairman of the Finance Committee. But it is hard to take him -- or the Senate -- seriously if he is allowed to get away with his new strategy.